Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Thoughts on Fahrenheit 451


I have a confession to make: I've never read Fahrenheit 451. In fact, I'm pretty shamefully unversed in the classics. I mean, I've read some thanks to college and high school, but I also spent not a small part of my college half-assing things. In fact, I literally beat Plants Vs. Zombies by playing it every day in my British Literature class.

Which is actually a great jumping off point for talking about Fahrenheit 451. (Couldn't you have just left it called The Fire Man, Bradbury? It'd be so much easier to spell.).

The novel imagines this futuristic dystopia where people have stopped reading or thinking about important things. Instead, they prefer to fill up all their time with mindless, shallow television programs, or stuffing their ears with little devices that pump noises into their heads in lieu of dealing with the crushing silence of not being engaged with some electronic stimulation. A world where people drive everywhere and nobody goes for walks anymore and those that do are considered strange and suspect. A world where people that think about life and the implications of those things are looked at as strange and eccentric at best and untrustworthy and dangerous at worst.

So...totally fiction, right?

So, the idea that Ray Bradbury eerily predicted much of where our society has gone is not a new idea. Yes, there are superficial similarities we can point to--like earbuds and ipods are similar to the seashells, and the walls of TVs aren't much different than the number of TVs in our homes anymore. It's true that, as John Green pointed out in a Vlogbrothers video, you can watch an episode of NCIS and not be sure if you've seen it before just like Montag's wife watches programs and then moments later can't remember what she watched.

To me, though, there are much more interesting things about the book.

For one thing, the unthinking, callous way that people behave strikes a chord with me. There's a moment where Montag is walking in the city--on the run--and he very nearly gets run over by someone driving a car. At first he thinks it's the authorities come to run him down like a squirrel in the road because he's carrying a book--which is against the law. But actually it's just some assholes that saw some weirdo walking and thought, "Who walks anymore? Let's see how close we can get to him."

I've experienced this. If you're someone who likes to go running, walking, or biking, you've probably experienced this, too. There's something about being in a car, something about being surrounded by the most advanced safety technology in human history, about having the force of several thousand pounds of steel and rubber at your disposal that makes you feel entitled, that makes you feel separate, other from those squishy meatbags.

I'm not saying that people that drive cars become sociopaths, but I've also been on my way to work and got caught behind someone on a bike and thought, "Oh, just get over so I can go around. I have PLACES to go!"

I've also been on a bike and had giant vehicle rocket around him, mere inches away from me.

And it's not just that. People have a way of rationalizing so much. If we look at history, World War II was a huge moment in our country's--in the world's history. It affected everything. But we've been at war with the Middle East nearly constantly for nearly 15 years. Like, they actually, literally declared war in my life time. And while I can say that we've all been affected by it, the war is a thing that you catch in glimpses on those public TVs in breakrooms and fast food restaurants that are playing one news channel or another. People don't really follow the progress of the war. It's just background noise.

In the same way that, in the book, they announce that they're going to war, and people idly discuss it as if it's nothing at all, as if they won't be affected by it at all. War with whom? Against whom? We never find out. It's just war. Even the thoughtful, educated people talk about the war as both "before" and "after" before it's even started.

War appears to be so constant that nobody even bats an eye at it.

On a technical level, one thing that I noticed about the book is that for the first half or so, it's written in a very sparse style. It's mostly dialog with very terse descriptions of actions. Not much setting, not a lot of worldbuilding. Lots of things left unsaid. It's only later, after Montag begins thinking, begins really paying attention to the world, that the book starts gaining more description. Even more so, toward the end of the novel, when he's fully separated himself from the life that he once knew, the book becomes almost overwritten as he ponders on every blade of grass, shake of leaf, and lap of water. It was such a subtle and great tool to reflect the state of mind of the character and his changing world view.

I can't say that the book was one of my favorite books. The characters were very simplistic, and it often felt like a cynical crank's thinly veiled rant about The Way Things Are. Additionally, not all criticism is the same, but Bradbury treats it as such. The Fire Chief, at one point, mentions all the minorities that get upset because one thing or another is offensive to them and how that, too, led to the watering down of everything. But black people being mad that black characters are all "Uncle Toms" is not the same as people being offended that a character cursed in a book, and the fact that Bradbury treats them as the same is ridiculous. (And I know it's Bradbury and not just the character because Bradbury makes the exact same points in an afterword in my edition of the book.)

But at the same time, there are parallels that on my darker days, I can see. We're all seeking distractions--it's why countercultural ideas like "phone free meals" are springing up. Every second that we're not engaged feels like an eternity. Why would I want to sit for fifteen minutes in line with nothing to do when I could be playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds or whatever cell phone game is popular now?

Ultimately, I think the novel is a worthwhile read, at least to get people thinking about the importance of thought and engaging with our world complexly, but I also think that means engaging it critically as well and recognizing that just because the book is classic doesn't mean it's infallible.