Fahrenheit 451: An Alternative Perspective
Vaibhav Sharma | September 18, 2021
Yesterday I finished reading the book Fahrenheit 451, oh wait did I say finished reading, more like, completed listening to the audiobook narrated by Tim Robbins. Yes, I’m a Neil DeGrasse Tyson certified badass who listens, instead of reads, a book that is all about the dangers of abandoning reading literature.
Fahrenheit 451 (or 232.778C in non retard units) is the temperature at which paper is said to self ignite, which is central to the story. The book is about a fireman, Guy Montag, and set in a dystopian future where houses are fireproof. So, the firemen get repurposed to burn illegal books instead, to maintain social stability. Until he meets an eccentric girl, Clarisse, who teaches him the joys of being a weirdo. The book emphasises on the dangers of censorship, consumption of mass media over books. It argues that doing so will leave us half dead half alive in our essence, just like the mechanised dog that hunts criminals, the mechanised snake that pumps stomach and Mildred Montag (Guy Montag’s wife) who’s your average millennial/gen-z kid buried in her iPad and AirPods. The book is very unsettling at times, is overall peppered with great ideas and makes us question whether the media most of us consume now, is just superficial. Also, the book predicted earphones, interactive media, ATMs etc. with eerie accuracy. It’s no doubt a great read but what bugs me is that the book pretends to be about book burning and censorship but is actually mostly about shitting on new technologies at its core. But why?
Ray Bradbury, since childhood, was obsessed with books but didn’t have the means to attend college after his high school ended. So, he took what he had and made the most of it by spending as much time as he could at the Los Angeles Public Library. He used to be pissed that the library didn’t stock science fiction novels like those of H.G. Wells, as they were deemed not literary enough. That and learning about the destruction of the Library of Alexandria made a great impression on little Ray. Also, his early life saw the Golden Age of Radio. And then, during the McCarthy era, the government started interfering with artists and creative kinds, all the while the world was transitioning to the Golden Age of Television, leading to the creation of the book Fahrenheit 451 on a typewriter that cost 20 cents an hour to rent.
Now forgive me for my ignorance but, I never found Tim Robbins to be significant enough to recognise by name, even though I have seen Shawshank Redemption. That and the fact that his voice seemed awfully similar to Norm McDonald’s, made it more hilarious than the author intended it. It certainly didn’t help on how fuckin preachy and on the nose the writing itself was at times. The writing was clearly influenced by George Orwell but lacked the subtlety and complexity of his work. It read like a fanfiction of 1984 about kids these days, which is ironic since George Orwell famously once said ―
“Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”
― George Orwell
Fuckin’ teenagers with their Radio and TV!
Generational labels get created to provide an order to our generally messy history and explain the concerned disappointment with the youth. This hate/disappointment for the youth is timeless with examples dating as far back as times of Aristotle, 4th century BC. And as is the tradition there’s always a relevant XKCD comic for any situation. This inaccurate, exaggerated and sensational characterisation of young people is called Ephebiphobia. But the sentiments of distaste and/or fear of the social culture associated with young people is perhaps better described by the term Juvenoia. Perhaps, fuelled by the way our memories are notoriously affected by emotions of the time, making them less than reliable. But surely things are way worse than they were back in the good ol’ days, right? There’s no depth beneath the superficial stimulation of modern media, right?
Popular science author and media theorist Steven Johnson argues that entertainment can now be made for all sorts of audiences to scratch all sorts of itches, with high rewatch value, encouraging discussion in online forums thus adding an intellectual level of depth that was never possible before. The complex web of names, relationships and events that people today have to keep straight in their heads to be socially aware consumers of mass media is impressive by historical standards. The time Ray Bradbury wrote his now-famous book about the dangers of mass media, it didn’t even have that much mass anyways. The steep rise in the consumption of mass media and interactive video games grew so much during the 90s that writer and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff coined the term Screenagers. Last year, Netflix took interactive storytelling to new levels with its production ― Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. But what if books were invented after interactive storytelling options like the internet, video games and choose-your-own-ending movies?
That’s exactly what was explored by Steven Johnson in his book ― Everything Bad is Good for You. He imagines a world where kids everywhere are starting to read these new trendy things ― books, causing the concerned parents and teachers to argue the following ―
“Perhaps, the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion. You simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. For those of us raised on interactive narratives, this property may seem astonishing. Why would anyone want to embark on an adventure utterly choreographed by another person? But today’s generation embarks on such adventures millions of times a day. Reading is not an active participatory process, it’s a submissive one. The book readers of the younger generation are learning to follow the plot instead of learning to lead.”
What if narcissistic selfies, memes and woke-ness are the most human things to do that we have yet discovered? After all, if historical trends are any indication then it’s pretty evident that we have only progressed as humans ― crimes committed by young people have decreased, academic proficiency has increased, hate comments have decreased etc. Then why is it that Juvenoia still persists? I mean it makes sense biologically ― after all, parents were a genetic success for the species, they produced a future generation, so, it makes sense for them to have a bias towards the way they were raised. Maybe worrying about the future generation might have been natural selection as well, just like walking or breathing. But whatever may be the reason, whether we apply memories of our good ol’ days fairly and rationally or not, the thing that breeds greatness isn’t a particular method, but time. The same H. G. Well’s books that were not considered literary enough in Bradbury’s times are now considered some of the greatest pieces of sci-fi literature ever produced. So when it comes to cheap laughs and superficial pop songs, I’m reminded of renowned Spanish essayist, Miguel de Unamuno, who once put it as ―
“More often I have seen a cat reason than laugh or weep. Perhaps it weeps or laughs inwardly. But then perhaps, also inwardly, a crab resolves equations of the second degree.”
― Miguel de Unamuno
That being said, I’d still recommend everyone to at least once read the book Fahrenheit 451, because beyond all the hate I spewed about technophobia in this article, it truly is a great story, we can all learn from it. Once immersed the reader will truly feel every emotion and dilemma that the protagonist faces, and perhaps a few more that weren’t put to words.