Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of a futuristic world in which books are banned and burned, TV is everyone’s drug of choice, and independent thinking is basically illegal. Ray Bradbury first wrote the tale as a short story called “Bright Phoenix” in 1947. The work progressed to adolescence as a novella called The Fireman, and finally became a full-grown novel in 1953. This was Bradbury’s first Big Important Serious Work, though he was already famous for science fiction stories like his 1950 collection The Martian Chronicles. These stories put Bradbury on the map, but Fahrenheit got his name on the literary A list.
While the novel does touch on the dangers of censorship, Bradbury was adamant that this was not his focus. The novel is about the dangers of television, he said, and his fears that such mindless entertainment would replace recreational free thinking. Remember that in the 1950s color TV was the hot new thing; it represented the burgeoning empire of leisure. Add into the mix Cold War fears of “suspect” individuals and a need for straight-laced conformity, and you’ve got an environment ripe for Fahrenheit-style fears. Critics recognized the relevance of Bradbury’s work then, and still do today.
Why Should I Care?
To the shock of many, Ray Bradbury has argued till the cows come home that Fahrenheit 451 is NOT about government censorship. In his mind, the novel is about the potential for TV to replace books, causing us to forget how to think for ourselves. Back in 1951 (two years before Fahrenheit was published), Bradbury wrote in a letter to fellow science fiction writer Richard Matheson:
“Radio has contributed to our ‘growing lack of attention.’ […] This sort of hopscotching existence makes it almost impossible for people, myself included, to sit down and get into a novel again. We have become a short story reading people, or, worse than that, a QUICK reading people.” (source)
Notice that he made this comment over fifty years ago. Consider what has changed since 1951. Bradbury seems to fear most of all the idea of the speed that technology like the radio and TV offers (making us a “QUICK reading people”). We wonder what Bradbury thinks of our Facebooked, MySpaced, Twittered, iPaded world today. One could say his fears have come true: we read at lightning-fast speed.
A huge part of a debate that is swirling all across the world about reading. You love literature, right? And you are feeding your interest through the Internet right now. You have a valuable perspective. The New York Times ran a story in July of 2008 about this very thing:
Clearly, reading in print and on the Internet are different. On paper, text has a predetermined beginning, middle and end, where readers focus for a sustained period on one author’s vision. On the Internet, readers skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends. (source)
New York Times writer Motoko Rich asks us here to consider the Internet’s benefit to our brain, saying that it is used to create our “own beginnings, middles and ends.” Are we, maybe, becoming more creative readers in addition to being “a QUICK reading people”? Is the book dead? Should we care if it is?
Get in on this debate – it’s all about you! And we bet you a million bucks it’s only just getting started. Who knows what new technology lies in wait for us?