Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Fahrenheit 451: Worth Re-Reading

When I discovered books as a tween, one of the first books I ever read was Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."  I have to admit I didn't understand its implications or more subtle points, so it didn't do much for me. A few years later, I read it again, and was deeply impacted. Obviously, I was still years away from being wise in the ways of the world, so there was a lot I didn't get. But I knew then that it was saying something powerful. Of course, being a high school student, I was assigned many other books which also attempted to say something profound. "Lord of the Flies", "The Good Earth", "The Grapes of Wrath". These and other works accomplished their intended tasks to varying degrees. They each had a point, which they communicated effectively.  Some, especially "Lord of the Flies" so completely lacked subtlety that they came across as preachy, and I did what I could to distance myself from such books.
A sad sidenote: I moved from one city to another in the middle of my sophomore year, so I ended up having to read LOTF twice.  Some books get better upon a re-reading. This was not one of them. I hated LOTF and have not gone back to it since that 2nd reading.

In contrast, F451 did get better upon re-reading. So much so that I took the time last month to read it again. I borrowed it from the library and devoured it. I probably should just purchase the dang thing. 

Chances are you've not yet read F451 because you have the impressions it's a silly sci-fi story about censorship. True, it is set in the future, which is why you will find it in the science fiction section; but F451 is actually much more than that.

The future setting serves it well. Futuristic sci-fi stories typically bring to mind Jetsons-like gadgets, silver bodysuits, and flying cars. F451 does have the flying cars, but only for a few minutes in one scene late in the story. The more important futuristic gadgets include:


1. Wide-screen TVs: In F451, homes have TV sets which take up entire walls, at a cost of thousands of dollars each.


2. Reality shows: Since fiction is more or less outlawed, the TV screens show something like what we'd call reality shows. They are not described in detail, but there are apparently a lot of characters who are family to each other and are regarded as family by viewers who get sucked into their stories, such as they are. Guy Montag's wife Mildred represents the masses who watch these shows, and when pressed to explain why she likes them, she cannot even say what the plot is. She does say these programs contain a lot of yelling. Sound familiar?


3. No regard for human life: When a neighbor dies, it's mentioned as just another event, like a broken-down car or rainstorm. No tears are shed. One wife is unfazed by the prospect of her husband being told he must go to war. Additionally, millions of viewers are urged to watch the police hunt down and kill a fugitive on live TV. 

4. Earbuds: citizens have little inside-the-ear earphones, called "seashells", where music, news, other entertainment, and commercials are constantly pumped to them by the networks. Seashells keep people from being conversant with those around them.

The list doesn't end here,  but these 4 examples are pretty interesting in light of this book being published in 1953, at the very beginning of the widespread acceptance of TV, and long before the appearance of anything resembling headphones which fit inside the ear, and a full half-century before Jersey Shore. 


The lack of regard for human life, however: well, that's been around for a long time, hasn't it?

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