Sunday, September 14, 2008

'fahrenheit 451'

And the latest book finished that I should have read decades ago: "Fahrenheit 451."

The book widely is presented as a treatment on censorship, portraying as it does a society where books are burned as a menace to society. This reading is common, but it is an error. It's a little more insidious than a story about a totalitarian regime in America, though. The book is how we have done this to ourselves through our preference for shallow entertainment.

The protagonist is Guy Montag, a fireman living in an America where books are illegal. Those who own them are whisked away for re-education, and their books are burned by the firemen. Books, after all, contain ideas, and those ideas can stir the human soul and leave us discontented with oursleves.

There are two poles that Montag moves between, and each is revelatory in what it says about America as it may have been, and America as it may be. The first pole is embodied in Clarisse, an unusual 17-year-old who stops to enjoy the world around her. Clarisse is the naif innocent, but she represents the purity of what even in the 1950s Bradbury sensed was being lost.

While cars whiz past at 100 mph or more, their drivers not caring if they hit someone (or, worse, enjoying the prospect), Clarisse walks. She smells flowers, listens to the wind, and looks at the leaves. She tells Montag stories she's heard from her uncle about the Way Things Used to Be, when people talked with one another, and neighbors knew one another, and people stopped to enjoy themselves and allowed themselves to be miserable at times.

The opposite pole is Beatty, the fire chief in charge of the burnings and the ultimate cynic. Beatty is slick and polished, and he's the ardent apologist for the cold new world that Bradbury has painted. He talks about how the American people dumbed themselves down, and how this has led to greater contentment and happiness.

No one had time to watch "Hamlet" any more, so they contented themselves with reading synopses of great works of literature, so they could know the story and be informed. Ideas became simple and sterile, and being entertained has become the goal of every person.

Books ultimately were banned not to control the people's access to information or ideas, as censors would do; but as a ratification of the dynamic already at work in society. The ideas within books threatened the popular sense of happiness, so people stopped reading them. As the people settled for lesser works of entertainment or contemplation, books were dismissed as meaningless and impenetrable.

Eventually superficial entertainments and superficial thinking became all people wanted. Montag's wife, Mildred, for instance, spends her day in a room with television screens on three walls, watching shows that are computer-altered to appear personalized for her, down to the ads. The shows are stupid, pathetic, utterly banal -- but to Mildred, the characters in her favorite shows are family.

The thought of not watching the TV -- of not getting a fourth TV screen to complete the room -- is unbearable. When Montag does turn the TV off at one point, she gets hysterical.

(And just think, Bradbury wrote this in the 1950s, before the days of widescreen TV, before we had 24-hour cable and satellite signals, and before the advent of the Internet with its personalized entertainment options.)

The book chronicles Montag's struggle to find his place between the two poles of Clarisse and Beatty, while it also shows the risks in not comforming to the powerful cynicism of Beatty. People who read are monitored for subversion, and risk running afoul of the powers that be. Meanwhile the book peeks into the emptiness that characters like Beatty and Mildred live with in their embrace of shallowness, and gives shades of the nihilism that threatens to overthrow their society.

This is a book I should have read back when I was a teen, but somehow I never did. I read several other Bradbury books, including "The October Country," "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and "The Martian Chronicles," along with "The Illustrated Man" -- but I never read "Fahrenheit 451," for reasons that escape me. My father and I were pretty thorough in our Bradbury blitz, from what I thought.

But as for Evangeline, I decided to save it for her for a little later. She's reading "The Sword in the Stone" right now, and she has plenty of other kid books she likes to read. I don't need to pile a mile-high stack of literature on her right now. Let her be a kid and read books she picks out because she enjoys them, without fear of condescension from her old man over their quality or what a good book should be.

That's how my parents let me read, after all, and it worked out just fine. She'll get to "Fahrenheit 451" when she's ready, even if it's not until she's 38.

1 comment:

Zero said...

Fahrenheit 451 is one of the few cases where the movie version is also good. It has an extremely 1960s feel to it, but it's still worth renting.