“It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
Based on nothing, I decided a long time ago that in the sci-fi canon, there are four classical works of dystopian literature: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I made it my mission to read all four of these works since my high school days and today, I consider that mission accomplished.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 supposes a future in which society is maximally diverted by mindless state-sanctioned entertainment that is devoid of meaning and passion. People are constantly—and sometimes literally—surrounded by sights and sounds blasting at their senses from Seashells (“thimble radios” analogous to in-ear headphones we have today), televisors (which I imagine look like VR goggles), and “parlor walls” that are essentially TV screens stretched from floor to ceiling and you may, if you wish, ensconce yourself in rooms penned by them on all sides (which, I’m not gonna lie, actually sounds pretty awesome).
It is a world in which one’s own thoughts are shouted down electronically, and the government employs “Firemen” that goes around burning books because the ownership and the reading of books are illegal. Yes, this is the bibliophile’s dystopia. If you ever lamented that people are watching too much Netflix and aren’t reading enough, this is a nightmare specifically brewed for you.
One might be tempted to think of this as one old man’s fear of new technology, but as Bradbury himself eloquently put it in Fahrenheit 451, there is nothing special about books:
“You’re a hopeless romantic,” said Faber. “It would be funny if it were not serious. It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlor families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios, and televisors, but are not…”
Books are just stand-ins in the novel for meaningful storytelling that excites us, challenges us, and makes us ask questions. The totalitarian government in Fahrenheit 451‘s philosophy is that such writings are sources of discomfort and unhappiness, and their elimination, therefore, must lead to happiness (and also, it helps to maintain an indolent populace that possesses neither the capacity nor the inclination to dissent or revolt). There are some stark imagery in this book that I won’t soon forget: like how someone rips up what is possibly one of the last copies of the Bible in front of a former English professor or how a woman refuses to part with her books and thus were burned along with them.
“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”
I was amused to find that even back in 1953, Ray Bradbury was worrying about how “PC-ness” or political correctness might be ruinous to intellectual discourse, a concern that wouldn’t be out of place in a Trump rally today.
“Coloured people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.”
And like many other things that Bradbury feared, this had not come to pass as well. Similar to Bradbury’s short story The Other Foot in The Illustrated Man, Bradbury does have a tendency to equivocate the grievances of black people with the complaints of the whites, quite ignoring the imbalance of power between the two groups that persists even today—but he was an old white man, so I can understand him even when I disagree with him. For some reason, he also seems to be upset about women having abortions, not wanting to have children, or choosing to have Caesarean sections over natural births, and expressed these opinions through his protagonist Montag.
Anyhow, I don’t think that just because the dystopia Bradbury envisioned did not come to pass, there is no value in this work. I don’t think the function of dystopian fiction is in divining our future but rather, they should be considered as devices to examine our Present—and I do mean our Present because I can still see the relevance of a cautionary tale on how we consume media. Perhaps it would gladden Mr Bradbury to know that when I stuff my Seashells into my ears, I am equally likely to be listening to an audiobook or an informative podcast, as I am to songs about sex and butts. Or when I watch a film or a TV show, I am still capable of discerning between the nourishment of meaningful storytelling versus the empty calories of popcorn entertainment. There is room in my heart for both.
P.S. Here is a fun trivia: 451°F (or 233°C) is the autoignition point of paper.