Sunday, December 31, 2017

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. The book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You'd find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more 'literary' you are. That's my definition anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies. 
I'm embarrassed to admit that this is my first time reading Fahrenheit 451. I've always preferred Vonnegut to Bradbury and have passed this one over a few times in favor of other dystopias. We're reading it in ninth grade English next month, so it was time to bite the bullet, and I'm glad I did.

I won't dwell too much on the plot here (even I knew the bulk of it before sitting down to read it). In Guy Montag's world, books are illegal. Firemen like Montag come to the rescue when books are discovered and gleefully burn them. Montag, we discover, has had subconscious doubts about this system for a while and has been stashing books salvaged from these fires. He starts to read them and all hell breaks loose.

I was struck by a couple of things while reading this. First and foremost, Bradbury's eerie prescience about the power of screens and technology. The book describes a natural turn away from literature and towards the bright, explosive entertainment of a version of television that doesn't seem far off from what we have today. A system that probably seemed impossibly futuristic 60 years ago--screens the size of parlor walls that created an immersive entertainment system--now feel totally within reach (if not something that already exists in fancier homes than mine). I'm intrigued as to how my students, who grew up with the omnipresence of screens and are often frustrated with or bored by books, will take all of this.

We throw around the concept of banned books and our reaction to them as somewhat of a badge of honor in this country. The Strand has a display table called Banned Books (Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Handmaid's Tale), and liberal outrage when schools or districts ban a particular book or author is loud and justified. That being said, we do not (as of yet) make it a nationwide practice to limit our citizen's access to literature. I spent six months in Moscow in college, and while I was there I struggled through Bulgakov's Master and Margarita in Russian (by struggled through I mean that I would read a few pages in Russian and then cave and read the chapter in English). After dinner one night, my host mother brought a dusty manuscript out of the closet. It was a thick, handbound, typewritten stack of papers; the cover read: Мастер и Маргарита. When she was a student, Bulgakov had been banned, and she and her friends had passed a single copy of the book around. She had loved it so much that she wanted to re-read it, so she sat down one night and typed the whole thing out. Start to finish. An entire class of intellectuals in the Soviet Union was doing the same with Solzhenitzyn, Pasternak, and more. Just a decade after Bradbury's intellectuals huddled by campfires, holding tight to their memorized Byron, Confucius, and Jefferson, the same scene was playing out in Soviet dorms (as I'm sure it did in Nazi Germany and every other oppressive regime that has attempted to limit access to literature). It's comforting to look back at Russian and Soviet literature and see what grew out of that time period: Akhmatova, Pasternak, Brodsky. Censorship hasn't worked yet. The jury is still out on screens, though.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

Good review. I gotta say, IMHO, Bradbury > > > > > > > Vonnegut.