Fahrenheit 451 is basically a work of prose poetry, beautifully written but lacking most of the qualities that traditionally make up a novel. There are no fully-realized characters, and to be honest, there’s barely even a functional plot, as the events of the book unfold in dream-like, ambiguous fashion in an attempt to drive the reader promptly from one allegorical point to another. Understand that this is not criticism; I’ve never been a huge poetry reader, but if a writer as good as Ray Bradbury wants to write a novel-length poem, who am I to argue? But it is a poem, and it’s written in such a way that neither the plot nor the characters are rich enough – distracting enough – to get in the way of the message being delivered.
But what is that message, exactly? When I first started writing about Fahrenheit 451, I spent some time on the fact that it is considered an essential classic, having become known over the years as THE book about censorship. That’s where it exists in the cultural consciousness – if you don’t believe me, type “books about censorship” into Google. Fahrenheit 451 is the first and most prominent result, with almost all the others being either controversial books that were censored, or non-fiction works about the history of censorship. Fahrenheit 451 is and will always be the Great Anti-Censorship Novel.
Except it isn’t. Nor was it ever intended to be.
Any analysis of the messages Fahrenheit 451 spends 165 pages drilling into the reader’s brain must begin with the fact that it’s not actually about censorship at all. How could it be? Take a look at the other books that come up in the “books about censorship” Google search. Three of them are children’s books: In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, and Daddy’s Roommate by Michael Willhoite. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum also appears, as does the somewhat more modern Operation Dark Heart by Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer. All of these books, rather than being inherently about censorship, are instead victims of censorship. Sendak’s book caused controversy because the child main character is openly naked most of the time. And Tango Makes Three and Daddy’s Roommate are both about normalizing homosexuality. The Index consists of works that were banned by the Catholic Church because they were considered heretical, while Shaffer’s military memoir was first totally censored and then heavily redacted by the U.S. Department of Defense. These books were censored because of their specific content, from nudity to homosexuality to heresy to classified information. Yes, they would all have been burned in the world of Fahrenheit 451, but the firemen would also burn children’s books in which the protagonist remained fully clothed, books about heterosexual relationships, every religious text regardless of creed, and books that contained no classified information whatsoever. The firemen don’t care about content. The firemen burn all the books. Censorship, by its very definition, must be the result of specific content considered undesirable by those in power. Because the powerful in Bradbury’s world do not discriminate based on content, they cannot be engaging in the act of censorship.
As it turns out, Bradbury himself would be the first to tell you these things. In 2007, he tried to set the record straight in an interview with LA Weekly, in which he made it clear that Fahrenheit 451 was not a book about censorship, nor (as some have intimated) a response to McCarthyism, but rather an indictment of television. In the book, Millie Montag’s defining characteristic is her obsession with a futuristic form of TV in which screens cover entire walls, and the cast of the show is referred to as “the family.” When not glued to the screens, she lives her life with a pair of “seashells” in her ears to provide her with audio entertainment. As previously mentioned, Millie represents the typical citizen of Bradbury’s dystopia: enslaved to the television, indifferent to books, numb to all feeling, loyal only to the three screens in her parlor, ambitious only to the extent that she wants a fourth.
Millie didn’t used to be a slave. The narrative tells us that these changes to society are recent, having occurred within the lifetimes of most of the characters. Beatty and Faber, at least, both vividly remember it happening. The Montags don’t appear to have such clear recollections, but their minds also appear to have been thoroughly dulled over the years. At one point, early in the story, Guy tries to remember how he met Millie, and cannot. He does remember in the end, and the memory is a bittersweet one of how they used to be before the world went wrong. The implication is that television warped Millie; television made her this way. It did a far less thorough job on her husband, but as I’ve established, Montag is not a regular Guy. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Terrible puns aside, the idea that television is Fahrenheit’s central antagonist is a little difficult to swallow, simply because it seems so ancillary to the rest of the plot. Then again, that might be the point. The book spends much more time lamenting the decline of books and reading, but having been established, the presence of television is always there, presiding ominously over the proceedings. The central idea of the loss of books is propped up in supporting cast fashion by the rise of television. And TV does come to the forefront during Fahrenheit’s climax, in which Montag is being hunted by the Mechanical Hound while every citizen in the city is glued to the chase as it plays out on the screens in their parlors. Montag even briefly watches the show himself at Faber’s house in a scene that is brutal in its criticism of television and those who obsess over it:
“If he wished, he could linger here in comfort, and follow the entire hunt on through its swift, phases, down alleys across streets, over empty running avenues, crossing lots and playgrounds, with pauses here or there for the necessary commercials, up other alleys to the burning house of Mr. and Mrs. Black, and so on finally to this house with Faber and himself seated, drinking, while the Electric Hound snuffed down the last trail, silent as a drift of death itself, skidded to a halt outside that window there. Then, if he wished, Montag might rise, walk to the window, keep one eye on the TV screen, open the window, lean out, look back, and see himself dramatized, described, made over, standing there, limned in the bright small television screen from outside, a drama to be watched objectively, knowing that in other parlors he was large as life, in full color, dimensionally perfect! And if he kept his eye peeled quickly he would see himself, an instant before oblivion, being punctured for the benefit of how many civilian parlor-sitters who had been wakened from sleep a few minutes ago by the frantic sirening of their living-room walls to come watch the big game, the hunt, the one-man carnival.”
Keep in mind that Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953. It had been less than a decade since the end of World War II allowed for the development of television technology, which had been stalled during the war, to resume. Few Americans had TV sets in their homes, and those who did were watching black and white programming on 7-inch screens. Television was some time away from the massive cultural force it would become over the course of the next ten years. It turns out that Bradbury, who in many ways was a traditionalist, was a futurist, after all. Already wary of the dominance of radio (the echoes of which can be seen in the sinister Seashells) he foresaw not only flatscreen color TVs that took over entire rooms, but a populace that would become completely overwhelmed by visual media, leaving typography to languish on the side of the cultural road.
I’m not the first to make this next connection (Mathew Ingram made it directly in a post on the blogging website GigOM in 2012) but if the lamentable victory of the television medium over the print medium is indeed the core warning of Fahrenheit 451, it reminds me very much of the argument presented in one of the great cultural critiques of the modern age: Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. I first read it in 2004, but it was published in 1985, the year I was born, and one of the reasons it stood out to me is because it seemed so thoroughly relevant 20 years later. In brief, Postman believed that American culture, once defined by intelligence, careful consideration, and rational discourse due to the dominant influence of print, has become a culture defined instead by distraction, ignorance, and entertainment due to television replacing print as the nation’s fundamental influence. I go back to Amusing Ourselves to Death every couple of years to see if Postman’s stinging analysis still resonates (a term of which the author himself would doubtless approve in this context), and each time, I find myself hoping that it reads as woefully outdated.
I am always disappointed. If anything, it has seemed to me that the internet culture, which has by and large replaced television as the nation’s dominant medium (and in the process, dragged the rest of the world into the conversation, too) has only continued to validate Postman’s fears. But what’s really interesting when comparing Postman to Bradbury is the fact that the framing device used in Amusing Ourselves to Death is a comparison between two other science fiction novels: George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Each is a warning of potential futures, but are set in radically different dystopias. As Postman puts it:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy…. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”
The most concentrated version of Postman’s thesis, as he himself says, is that Huxley was right, not Orwell (perhaps because Postman hadn’t experienced, and indeed, never lived to see, the Age of Trump, in which 1984 is a bestseller). But why didn’t Postman mention Fahrenheit 451? Of what dire conditions does Bradbury warn? The book seems to come down on both sides of the Orwell/Huxley debate. On the one hand, there is certainly a structured mechanism for book-burning, a deliberate means of controlling the flow of information that seems to be in the hands of the state. On the other hand, Millie Montag and her fellow non-Guy citizens (crap, there’s another one, I’m so sorry) are completely pacified by distraction, to the extent that they don’t even miss their freedom after it’s gone. Postman was looking at a world that had moved in a distinctly Huxleyan direction, and thus likely saw little relevance in Bradbury’s amalgam dystopia. But the major difference between Fahrenheit 451 and both 1984 and Brave New World is that Bradbury populates his dystopia with a functional resistance movement. There is no hope for either Orwell’s or Huxley’s protagonist, but there is hope for Guy Montag. There is a community of people living out in the woods who have memorized all the books and carry their knowledge forward in hopes of passing it on to a culture that can use it. Montag neither commits suicide at the end of his story, nor accepts the love of Big Brother, but resists, escapes, and joins the revolution. In narrative terms, it’s closer to Star Wars than to 1984 or Brave New World. Perhaps that was another reason Postman overlooked Bradbury’s book – he saw no signs of resistance to America’s cultural decline.
With this discussion as a context, how does the message of Fahrenheit 451 actually hold up in (let me just check my phone here…yep, still) 2017? I don’t know about you, but Bradbury’s prophecy suddenly seems more relevant even than Orwell’s. If Neil Postman were alive today and I had the opportunity to ask him one question, it would be this: What happens when a culture veers into Huxleyan territory just long enough to allow an Orwellian takeover? I’m not currently convinced that is exactly what is happening in America today, but that’s certainly the warning I’d like to hear about given our current direction. And if I were likewise allowed a single question of Bradbury, I would ask him where the resistance hides in a globalized world where the forests are mostly gone and the NSA doesn’t need a Mechanical Hound to find you before you reach the river. The inherent truths presented by both Postman and Bradbury may not have changed, but given the current landscape of both politics and the media, we have (finally) reached the point where the message specifics are in need of an update.
The problem is that the internet medium is inherently social in a way that no medium has been since perhaps the spoken word, but simultaneously broader than any medium before, period. Print allowed for a conversation between the author and a mass audience. Television expanded that conversation, but at the same time trivialized its content, sacrificing relevance and proximity for a wider field of influence. As Postman argues, television created a world in which we are overwhelmed with information about which we can do nothing. The internet expanded television’s field of influence exponentially further and has pushed the public capacity for distraction to its breaking point… but it also reintroduced an older element: the properties of spoken word, by which an actual back-and-forth conversation can be had in which one’s words are considered less carefully than those written down in a book, and can be responded to immediately. Furthermore, at least in theory, we can do something about the information given to us by the internet, and attempts to transform this medium into a means of practical action, though supremely flawed, are at least an indicator that, far from being pacified, the population is ready and willing to make their voices heard. We are not a world of Millie Montags, uncaring about the changes happening around us and just waiting for the next show to come on so we can be entertained. We are more like Guy, desperately seeking a means to act on the things that we know, deep within us, are fundamentally wrong.
Of course, the other thing about the internet is that it has also become our Granger. Unlike television, the internet offers us not just broadcasting power, but an unprecedented amount of storage space. There’s no need for any one (or two) people to “be” the Book of Ecclesiastes; the Book of Ecclesiastes is readily available online. So are works by Plato, Shakespeare, Darwin, Einstein, and all the other authors memorized by Granger’s ex-fireman resistance group, if you know where to look. But Granger’s resistance required complete removal from the oppressing society and their controlling forms of media; today’s archives of past knowledge reside within the same system that so often controls us with distraction. Is there a way to fight oppression-by-medium via alternate use of that medium? If the internet is the agent of our 2017 dystopia, is the only solution to cut ourselves off from the means by which huge portions of the world acquire and communicate information?
Postman wouldn’t say so, I don’t think. But Postman has a more nuanced take on the subject, and recognizes that all media can be used for good reasons as well as bad (he just thought television’s negative uses far outweighed the positive). Bradbury hated the internet, by his own admission, and fought ferociously against his work being converted to electronic formats. He didn’t see its value or its potential, and he has the same black-and-white attitude toward television, and even to a certain extent toward radio. And of course, having the sensibilities of a traditionalist poet writing in the 1950s, Bradbury valued things like the smell and feel of a book, finding no beauty or grace in electronics. Whether we agree with him on this or not is irrelevant. Electronics are the foundation for the structure of our world, and we must learn to find beauty and grace in them, or dissolve into despair.
So while the message of Fahrenheit 451 does have resonance, and while Bradbury did predict a media future that was, for him, terrifying, his solution – flee to the forest and let the city get bombed – is obsolete and unhelpful. If we should take any fundamental idea from Fahrenheit 451, it is the true value of books, plain and simple. But ironically, the Great Anti-Censorship Novel seems to advocate the silencing of entire forms of communication. The nature of a medium informs its content, but the content is still the important thing. When the “family” on the screen becomes an actual community, with electronic connections becoming human connections and content that has many things of vital importance to say, burning all the screens and leaving every book untouched would be as big an intellectual and cultural sin as burning all the books, instead.
And, at long last, that’s all I have to say about Fahrenheit 451. It was more than I anticipated, but it turns out that while the style of the book isn’t exactly for me, the issues it raises are deep enough to prompt serious thought, as it should continue to do. I’m not sure I’ll be able to say the same about the next book on the Reading List – They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, generally considered to be the worst novel ever to win the Hugo Award. But I am sure that there will be lots to talk about.