It is accepted that we live in an Early Dystopian State. Claiming that we are merely decadent is what passes for optimism these days. The real debate is not whether things are bad but over which dystopian novel best reflects our current and coming dystopia. The Handmaid’s Tale is a popular choice despite making no sense whatsoever in the current political climate. 1984 is an evergreen option since Orwell was prescient enough to include all the favorite tools of oppression of both the contemporary Left and the contemporary Right. Taking a page from 1984, as our leaders appear fond of, has its advantages—in these days of fragmented popular culture 1984 offers the rare common language of oppression, a shorthand that oppressors can take advantage of to save a bit of work. No bureaucrat is so committed to oppression that he won’t cut a corner or three. Much better, then, if the people are polite enough to facilitate their own oppression. And American’s today are certainly committed to facilitating their own oppression—out of sheer mental laziness if nothing else. Which makes Brave New World, with its happiness substitute drug Soma, a popular choice these days. I am here today, though, to give Fahrenheit 451 its due.
Just as 1984 introduced newspeak and memory hole and Big Brother into the cultural lexicon, just as far more people know the boot quote from the end of 1984 than have actually read that far, just as you can casually use “Soma” as a metaphor, anyone with any cultural competency knows that Fahrenheit 451 is a book about book burning.
You don’t need to make it to the end of the book to find that out. The first line—one of the great first lines in English literature—is “It was a pleasure to burn.” Bradbury only makes us wait until the fifth and sixth sentences to learn what Guy Montag finds pleasure in burning.
He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and the lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.
We—and by we, here, I mean we people who read books, this being a book blog, we few people today who actually read anything longer than a Tweet—recognize that burning books is Bad. But that doesn’t mean that it is relevant. The Nazi’s burned books, but national socialism has been relegated to the dustbin of history, right?
Literal book burnings aren’t really a thing in the U.S. (for now), but as those great poets of my generation wrote, “They don’t gotta burn the books, they just remove ’em.” Banned Books Week never lacks for reading material. Antifa surrounded Powell’s Books in Portland, forcing the store to close, because it continued to offer a book online that it had already taken off of its physical shelves. A book about Antifa. (You might think that blackshirts threatening mob violence against a business that won’t toe the line is fascist, but “anti-fascist” is right there in the name, so, checkmate, Nazi. If your first thought is “F those guys,” only you didn’t think “F,” you can buy Ngo’s Antifa book at Amazon and, for now, Powell’s.) Publishers have even gone so far as to pull a book deal for the simple sin of a sitting U.S. Senator cheering a literal assault on his own branch of government for cheap political gain. (The opportunities to accurately allude to Orwell in relation to contemporary politics are infinite. This doesn’t stop politicians and commentators from inaccurately alluding to Orwell far more often.)
But how relevant are books, really, in an age of social media? In some ways, Fahrenheit 451 comes across as dated. Bradbury juxtaposes the banned, hunted books against ubiquitous television. Guy’s wife has a room outfitted with three wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-ceiling screens and begs Guy to spend a fortune to add the fourth wall (her TV room sounds pretty awesome, to be honest). In one bit that is prescient, she constantly wears
AirPods wireless earbuds so she never need be away from her TV “family,” even when away from the TV room.
Fahrenheit 451 remains relevant because it isn’t really that TV is evil in Bradbury’s telling. It isn’t even really that books are good. A shelfful of unread books is a vile thing. TV can be good and enjoyable. The evil of TV is in the passivity of the viewer’s consumption but even more so that it makes the viewer a slave to the TV’s timetable. Take a break to literally or figuratively smell the roses and you might miss the next plot twist. Which, again, in an age of on-demand entertainment might seem dated.
We can, after all, pause Netflix and literally or figuratively smell the roses anytime we want. We don’t, but we could. One of the most revelatory concepts that I have been introduced to in regards to how I interact with the internet and especially social media is friction. Social media is designed to sand down every possible point of friction its users might face. There isn’t any need to make the effort to remove any Facebook Pages or Groups you don’t enjoy anymore; Facebook will just memory hole them (there is 1984 popping up again). This is why Twitter keeps trying to force an algorithm-driven timeline on its users. The ability to curate the accounts you follow is one of the great strengths of Twitter but it takes work. The article writer’s point was that social media companies have every incentive to remove friction but the users would be better off reintroducing friction to the mix.
Yes, in theory we could step away from the streaming service or the social media. But YouTube keeps autoplaying the next video and we keep letting it. Twitter keeps spoon feeding us the latest outrage and we lap it up, a quick pause to express our own outrage (even meta-outrage over everybody being outraged) hardly slowing us down (but, if that is too much work, we can always retweet). Forget the ostensibly interactivity; we’re just lab rats furiously slapping a pedal so we can get our first hit.
It was the voluntary relinquishment of agency over our own lives that Bradbury despised and feared. The dystopian government of Fahrenheit 451 needed its citizens to voluntarily set down books before it could start burning them. Government resources are not infinite. To squash people you need to isolate them. There are techniques to do so across the population, but much easier for them to just do it themselves. It doesn’t matter that we can actively interact with media in theory if we choose not to in fact.
Books greatest strength are their fatal weakness. Any book, no matter how good, how gripping, can be put down. We can stop and think. We can ponder on the assertions made therein. We can add our own crenellations to the world inside the book outside of it, inside our own minds. But that’s the thing. We can put books down. It is only a useful feature if we pick them back up again.
That is why Fahrenheit 451 is so relevant today. There is nothing to stop of from critical thinking but ourselves. But, rest assured, if we in the aggregate continue to commit to our refusal to think critically, someone will eventually come along to squash the holdouts.
The nice thing, at least, is that Fahrenheit 451 is an optimistic work. 1984 suggests that sooner or later it all leads to a boot on a face and that boot is forever. Fahrenheit 451 suggests that, however dark it gets, pinpricks of light remain because the human spirit is indominable. Burn the books and lone men will carry them around in their minds.
That alone is a good recommendation for Fahrenheit 451. 1984 is a great book, but Jesus is it a downer. I was reading Fahrenheit 451 over the holidays. I recommended it to my father-in-law, but he pointed out after just finishing 1984 he needed a break from the dystopia. Fahrenheit 451 is dystopian, but it also comes with considerably more hope for light at the end of the tunnel.
That isn’t all it has to recommend it. Like 1984 and Atlas Shrugged, Fahrenheit 451 includes a very long monologue (it may not get the same bum rap, but the monologue in 1984 is just as bad as the one in Atlas Shrugged). Bradbury improves on Orwell and Rand’s technique in a few ways: his monologue is earlier in the book, thus robbing it of less narrative momentum; his monologue is far shorter; and, most importantly, his is not an author filibuster but an anti-author filibuster. Guy’s captain, a terribly reasonable sounding antagonist, says everything the rest of the book is meant to teardown. Bradbury trusts the reader enough to construct their own monologue in defense of his proposition. Or not. The great strength of books, after all, is that you can set them down and disagree.
5 of 5 Stars.
Vintage Science Fiction Month comes every year, right after Santa. The gist is simple: read speculative fiction written before 1980 (or the year you were born) and write about it in January. Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of Andrea at The Little Red Reviewer.