Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953).
This is a strange kind of homecoming for me. My very first financial success as a writer occurred in 1963 when I took second place in the University of Redlands writing contest. I was a senior in high school at the time and the thirty dollar prize was a lot of money. The story, as I recall, was called “The Gang.” It was a lurid tale of unrequited love, bullying, disillusion, and existential crisis in high school. Ray Bradbury was one of the judges of the contest, or at least he had lent his name to it, and my sense that he, personally, had read my story and deemed it worthy of a thirty dollar bonanza was an enormous encouragement to me. I still remind myself of it every time a rejection letter rolls in.
At the time I was a huge fan of Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451. While the former appealed to my perennial love of science fiction – I was a charter member of the Science Fiction Book Club for which I received a document guaranteeing me a spot at the head of the line to purchase a seat on the first commercial flight to the moon — the latter especially appealed to my blooming political sensibilities with its withering portrait of a dystopian America, truly prophetic it seemed to me at the time, in the sense that prophecy is not about the future but the present. It was a time of a looming cultural civil war, with the civil rights struggle heating up and the antiwar movement just around the corner.
It’s difficult to recall all these years later what specifically excited me about the book, but it no doubt had something to do with the portrait of an oppressive state dedicated to imposing ignorance on people. Opening up the newspaper every morning, as I did in those days, to photos of uniformed police with cattle prods and vicious dogs attacking peaceful crowds of blacks who only wanted the right to vote, I was ready to hear Bradbury’s message of a totalitarian state out of control – and, of course, of the resistance of a few brave souls determined to keep the spirit of freedom alive in the face of that repression. Of course, the fact that it was first serialized in Playboy may have had something to do with its attraction as well. The magazine had great articles and stories.
We often talk about Fahrenheit 451 as a book about censorship. Given the centrality of book burning in the text and the inevitable association of book burning with censorship, the connection is unavoidable. And censorship was certainly on our young minds in those days. I am of an age that I can remember the scandal surrounding comic books and the attempt to ban them in 1954 – and in fact mine were banned when my mother stormed into my room, scooped up the stack that Jack Johnson, an older boy who lived down the street, had given to me and that I kept stashed under my bed. She tossed them all in the trash in a fit of righteous indignation at their lurid content while the radio blared news of the hearings of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency and its condemnation of my beloved horror comics and of the mass rallies organized to burn them.
Later, news of mysterious writers named Joyce and Lawrence filtered down to us. Having been outlawed made them unspeakably attractive. We hungered for what was banned. I remember reading in the Riverside Press in 1963, 30 years after Ulysses was allowed into the US, that the Riverside public library had finally decided to allow the book into its collection. I immediately headed to the library, checked it out and ostentatiously carried it around for weeks, although I could make neither head nor tail out of what it meant and only managed to read about four pages.
After that followed news of Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Paul Krassner. JD Salinger, and a slew of other, to us, heroic writers who stood up to the book burners and fought, as we somewhat romantically saw it, for freedom of thought and the human spirit. Book burning of course is nothing new. As an attempt to control access to ideas it has been around at least since the 7th century BCE when Jehoiakim, the King of Judah, had the prophet Jeremiah’s scroll burned. Some things never change, it seems. From the Spanish Inquisition, to the Nazi horrors, to banning Ginsberg’s Howl to the recent torching of each new volume of the adventures of Harry Potter, the suppression of knowledge, of ideas, replaces debate and persuasion by those who are terrified of difference and secretly know that they are in fact doomed to what Marx called the dustbin of history. We all remember Jeremiah, but who remembers Jehoiakim. We all know the name of the sacred Muslim text, the Koran, but who recalls the names of those medieval Christian censors who threw it into the flames? And as for Harry Potter, how are you going to incinerate the largest franchise in history?
Being against book burning is a little bit like being for motherhood, however. It is really not that much of threat in a culture that is based on what Herbert Marcuse called repressive tolerance. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may be the most banned book in U.S. history. It was immediately outlawed by the Concord Public library when it was first published because it was considered “flippant, irreverent, and trashy,” to quote the library board. And it was by and large libraries and their boards that continued to condemn the book for immorality and to ban it from library shelves right up until the 1950s. At that time, with the rise of the civil rights movement, the charge against the book began to shift to racism because of Twain’s Realist aesthetic and his accurate depiction of the vernacular English of his day. Even writers who should know better, like Jane Smiley piled on, demanding the book be replaced in university curriculums by that masterpiece of moralist banality, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The latest development is that the text has been Bowdlerized – a word we have inherited from the misplaced censoring of Shakespeare — and the word “nigger” completely removed from its latest edition.
Notwithstanding all that, however, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has never been out of print in the 140 years since it was first published. This is what Bradbury was referring to in a 2009 interview when he claimed that “we have never had censorship in this country – and we’ve never burned books.” He went on, “I get letters from teachers all the time saying my books have been banned temporarily – I say don’t worry about it – put them back on the shelf.” That no doubt is what happened, and what continues to happen with Huck Finn. No matter how many library boards ban it, no matter how many moralists rewrite it, it just keeps getting put back on the shelf. For Bradbury, then, at least later in his life, the issue at the heart of Fahrenheit 451 was not censorship or book burning. “I wasn’t worried about freedom,” he said in the same interview. “I was worried about people being turned into morons by TV.”
Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 early in television’s history. Regular commercial programing didn’t begin until 1948, a mere 5 years before Bradbury penned – or actually, typed – his novel in the basement of the UCLA library. It was only a few years after his book was published that Newton Minow, chairman of the US Federal Communication Commission, gave the speech in which he famously declared that commercial television programming was a “vast wasteland.” Bradbury was responding to a receiver with a 7 inch black and white screen filled, as Minow detailed, with “. . .a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom.”
The real enemy in Bradbury’s novel is not the state driven by a desire to control knowledge. It is the people who abandon their Enlightenment heritage of autonomy and intellectual curiosity for the opiate of television. His prophetic fear was that television would anaesthetize people to the point they abandoned books as too disturbing, too difficult, leaving themselves at the mercy of an endless broadcast stream of meaningless factoids, as he called them, about celebrities’ sex lives and the latest shooting at Jane and Finch. “Television gives you the dates of Napoleon, but not who he was,” Bradbury said.
A lot has changed since 1953 – and a lot has stayed the same. The 900 channel universe and subsequent breakdown of network domination of television programming has yielded some surprising results. It has meant that independent producers able to attract an audience loyal enough to support them have been able to create a remarkable explosion of well-written, provocative television shows that put to shame 95% of the feature films that show up in theatres. I am referring to shows like “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” “Justified,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Breaking Bad,” “Rome,” “Luck,” “Game of Thrones,” “Vikings,” “Downton Abbey,” “Hell on Wheels,” and countless others including a proliferation of documentaries that in fact do tell you who Napolean was. These are shows that take advantage of the protracted nature of television programming and develop characters and ideas over fourteen or more hours. Because the audience is self-selected, the writing is intelligent, provocative, even shocking. It is in fact art, and it challenges us to engage art, which is a particular kind of thinking. None of that was possible in 1953 when the ethos of television was, above all, offend no one.
That said, there is just as much crap on television today as ever. If the 900 channel universe has opened up more possibilities for intelligent and informative writing, it has also increased the size of the wasteland, filling it up with mind numbingly moronic “reality” shows, endless shopping channels, and Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Whether this has resulted in the dystopia Bradbury predicted remains to be seen. My sense is that it hasn’t, that all the terms have changed value in such a way that TV is the least of our problems. Mind you, television news continues to churn out authorized factoids. But many people, especially young people, don’t even watch TV. Nor do they go to movies. Or read books. Instead, they are glued to the little screens they carry around in their pockets, endlessly surfing social networking sites and playing downloaded games to kill the time as they cross the street in front of your car without bothering to look up. In every waiting room I find myself in, I am almost always the only person to open a book. Everyone else is doing what used to be called the Blackberry Prayer, before that technology got left in the dust.
But then things aren’t that much better among readers, either. We live in a society of what the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy calls general equivalence. It’s a society where all difference has been reduced to a difference in price and all value is monetary. The only meaningful activity available to us is shopping and we make pilgrimages to malls in order to experience the fulfillment that comes with encountering value in the form of factory outlet sales. What more value could you ask of existence than 50% off a pair of Prada shoes? Why should reading escape that pressure when so much else of our lives is defined by it? In any case, one result is something like the condition Bradbury presents in Fahrenheit 451, that reading, like screen watching has to a great extent become one more form of consumption that pacifies us.
I teach literature classes at the University of Toronto, and for many years facilitated two reading groups in the Toronto Public Library system. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have been told that the difficulty encountered in some books is a sign the book is bad. Students nearly always first blame the book when they encounter a text they can’t read, a text that “doesn’t make sense.” In the reading groups, the response was more likely to reject the book because it wasn’t “realistic,” but the result was the same. Encountering difficulty was an excuse for rejecting the book in favour of one that did make sense, one that was realistic, which is to say, one the reader already knew how to read.
What I am suggesting here may get me kicked out of the library – here I am pitching this in the Keep Toronto Reading program – maybe they’ll withhold my cheque. But I honestly think that today, contrary to Bradbury’s argument, there is no inherent virtue in reading as opposed to watching television. In fact, often what we call reading is just another form of consumption. Thirteen bucks is the equivalent of a certain amount of distracted pleasure. The book is no different than a hamburger or a new pair of shoes, Students have argued with me that reading even the most commercial best seller is better than watching TV because it, as they say, engages the imagination. I think what they mean by this is something akin to McLuhan’s famous distinction between hot and cool media, where the mere technology – print versus screen – results in a profoundly different engagement. My own sense – and I am following Umberto Eco here in his critique of McLuhan – is that content – form, message, code – is far more important than technology, and that in that sense, the real issue is what we watch and read and how we watch it and read it, rather than whether we watch or read.
Reading and watching can both either challenge your limits or confirm them in some deep sense. If you restrict yourself to reading what you already know how to read, the world will remain within the horizon you have settled in. If you decide to read a difficult text — Carol Maso or Diane Williams, Gilbert Sorrentino or Kathy Acker — if you struggle with it, look stuff up, read and reread the most impenetrable passages, chase down other texts that play a role in it, read what other people have said about it — you will eventually come to an understanding that will in fact open you to what Emerson calls your further self. It will unsettle you. But that is not what people generally mean by “reading” these days. It is not a struggle with an angel. It is a recreational activity. I don’t mean to knock that. Some of my favourite moments have been spent on the deck at the cottage reading the latest Elmore Leonard novel. I published a mystery myself a couple of years ago. But that is not the limit of reading, and encountering a difficult text is the sign of that. It is a sign that you have reached a limit, a limit to your self. It’s the announcement of the possibility of growth, of transformation, of passage to new worlds of meaning.
Watching offers a similar possibility, depending on what you watch and how you watch it. So-called reality shows, not so much. But shows like “Justified” or “Hell on Wheels” with their insightful and disturbing critiques of the moralist regime or the historical amnesia that deadens American culture are just as provocative and insightful as a difficult novel. They are in fact art, and like all art, they beckon us to think, to engage their own thoughtfulness with a similar thoughtfulness, to meet their excess of sense with curiosity and mental effort. The problem is our expectations. We don’t expect to encounter art in a crime novel or a TV show. So while the difficult novel or poem confronts us with what seems like obscurity, the television show confronts us with what seems like transparency. We need to learn how to engage both.
Bradbury’s dystopian vision still speaks to us because it represents a culture of people who have abandoned thought for comfort, independence for security, the world for a screen, and all too often that is the reality that in lucid moments we find ourselves in. But the problem is not censorship, because as Bradbury recognized, it doesn’t actually exist for us except as some straw dog we can feel self-righteous about opposing. The powers that be don’t need to restrict our access to dangerous materials because we do it for them. In any case, we always have the option of just putting the book or film back on the shelf. Nor, contrary to Bradbury, is the problem this medium or that. If all the screen junkies in the world suddenly abandoned their screens and started reading Jonathan Franzen and his endless rehash of Dickens, not much would change – except for those for whom Dickens was an unexplored and difficult territory, something they couldn’t simply consume. The real problem is a culture that encourages us, even rewards us, for endless, thoughtless consumption, consumption that may begin in innocent recreational strolls through the mall, but inevitably ends up determining our relation to every aspect of lives from politics to education to – yes – reading.
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Michael Boughn’s talk about Fahrenheit 451 was delivered at the Toronto Public Library in April 2013 as part of the library’s One Book/Keep Toronto Reading programs.