While books like 1984 and Brave New World are getting a lot of buzz right now because of the political climate of the country, I think there’s a classic dystopian title which is even more deserving of our reading (and re-reading): Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
If you’ve not read the book, you likely at least know its general plot: In the future, firemen no longer put out fires, rather, they start fires to piles of books. Books have been outlawed, and anyone caught with them is a criminal whose stash is to be burned up, sometimes with the daring reader along with it.
One particular firefighter, Guy Montag, encounters a couple of people who help change his mind about books, and particularly, the ideas held within them.
While 1984 and Brave New World offer scary glimpses of a future that some argue is already here, Fahrenheit 451 is filled with hope, and offers ideas for how people can resist — not the government necessarily, but the shallowness and thoughtlessness of the age.
Let’s look at a few specific lessons we can garner from Bradbury’s classic.
If You Want Better Media, Vote With Your Clicks and Dollars
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
In the dystopian future Fahrenheit 451 depicts, books slowly lost their value over time. As society began to move at a faster pace (quite literally — cars travel so fast that billboards must stretch 200 feet long to be readable), the written word started to seem too slow and boring, especially in comparison to the new forms of media that became available. People preferred to stay home and watch the “parlor walls” — giant television screens — or go see a sporting event instead of reading. Publishers abridged books into shorter and shorter works to meet the needs of steadily atrophying attention spans, but demand for even these “Cliffs Notes” shriveled.
Eventually, the government simply banned books altogether, under the pretense that not having to deal with reading and difficult-to-digest ideas would make the public happier.
Looking at the current media landscape, it’s a course of events that doesn’t seem entirely far-fetched.
Articles and books have been made ever shorter (or substituted altogether for videos) in order to appeal to those who cry “TL;DR!” to anything over 500 words. News and debates are often conducted in soundbites and conveyed in 140-character tweets.
Many people shake their heads at these trends, and act as if they’ve been brought about by shadowy forces and greedy media corporations. “Those people” over “there” are to blame.
It’s true that media companies do want to make money. But they’re only able to do so by fulfilling what the consumer demands. If the consumer wants short, dumbed-down content, that’s what is produced. Websites wouldn’t create clickbait headlines if they weren’t effective in soliciting clicks.
The reality is that it isn’t corporations who are responsible for our media, but the public. You, me, and everyone else. How you direct your attention, what subscriptions you’re willing to pay for, and what you click/share/re-tweet greatly determines the content that is put out by websites and media corporations.
If you vote for quality with your clicks, that’s what you’ll get. If you vote for bite-sized nuggets of fluff, an endless supply will be produced.
Until at some point, as in Bradbury’s novel, all information becomes so trivial and seemingly useless, that it could be banned outright and only elicit a shrug of the shoulders.
Facts Are Useless Without Context
“Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.”
Our modern society has an obsession with acquiring information, most of it in the form of social media and internet articles. We think that reading about the news (in reality, often just the headlines of the news) and keeping up with what’s happening with our Facebook friends, makes us smart, informed citizens.
And to some degree it does. Surely, having some knowledge of mere facts is better than none. The problem, especially today, is that by simply watching the news or reading articles on the internet, you can hear very different facts about the exact same subject. It’s really hard to know who to trust, how to suss out what the truth is about a certain matter (if that’s even possible at all), and how to develop a truly informed opinion about something. Rather than putting in the hard work of doing those things, we simply hit the “Share” button or re-tweet something after reading a headline that we think conveys some new information.
In today’s world, being informed doesn’t actually matter much, or set you apart. Simply knowing isn’t enough, even though it can sure feel like it. As Bradbury writes above, when you’re chock-full of information, you feel satisfied and enormously “brilliant.” But are you really?
Our world isn’t made better or moved forward by knowing facts. It’s the “slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology” that enables progress of thought and action. It’s thinking deeply, connecting ideas, knowing the context of those ideas, and solving problems by delving into your toolkit of mental models that matters.
As Montag’s sage mentor, Faber, says:
“It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. … There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”
You don’t need more information. You need new ways of stitching the world together.
To give a quick example, let’s briefly look at Paleo dieting. Many folks in the last decade have taken up what they consider to be the diet of cavemen. Eggs every morning, plenty of meat/seafood, nuts, leafy greens, etc. This is based on the information that those foods are what our prehistoric ancestors — who were presumably healthier than their modern, overweight descendants — had available to them.
But it’s not that simple. As Kamal Patel asked in his podcast with Brett, “Would paleo man have really eaten 3 eggs every morning?” It’s far more likely that ancient humans had a varied diet based on what they could hunt and forage at that time and season rather than eating the same things every day. They likely had intermittent periods of fasting and gorging, and consumed many foods that are either now extinct or look very different than they did 10,000 years ago (though of course some are also remarkably similar).
On top of all that, can we really be sure that a caveman diet is what’s best for everyone in the 21st century? It’s more likely that folks have different needs and that various diet regimens can work for them.
See how adding a little bit of context from history, archaeology, and modern nutrition creates a very different picture than the simple facts of “knowing” what constituted a caveman’s diet?
So what does one do to be able to look at ideas through different lenses, and not just amass facts but connect them together?
Read widely, both fiction and non-fiction. Consider both sides of an issue — or take it a step further and dismiss both and come up with your own opinion or theory (one based on evidence, of course). Delve into various disciplines like biology, philosophy, psychology, sociology, physics — spend more effort on trying to understand how the world works and less on understanding pop culture. An ancient Greek classic could end up giving you more insight into the modern world
In Fahrenheit 451, owning and reading books is illegal. Members of society focus only on entertainment, immediate gratification and speeding through life. If books are found, they are burned and their owner is arrested. If the owner refuses to abandon the books, as is the case with the Old Woman, he or she often dies, burning along with them. People with interests outside of technology and entertainment are viewed as strange, and possible threats.
In the book, Bradbury doesn't give a clear explanation of why censorship has become so great in this futuristic society. Rather, the author alludes to a variety of causes. Fast cars, loud music, and massive advertisements create an over stimulated society without room for literature, self-reflection, or appreciation of nature. Bradbury gives the reader a brief description of how society slowly lost interest in books, first condensing them, then relying simply on titles, and finally forgetting about them all together.
Bradbury also alludes to the idea that different "minority" groups were offended by certain types of literature. In his discussion with Montag, Beatty mentions dog lovers offended by books about cats, and cat lovers offended by books about dogs. The reader can only assume which minority groups Bradbury was truly referring to. Finally, in the Afterword to Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury clearly expresses his own sensitivity to attempts to restrict his writing. For example, he feels censored by letters suggesting he should give stronger roles to women or black men. Bradbury sees such suggestions and interventions as the first step towards censorship and book burning.
Throughout the novel, the reader is presented with a conflict between knowledge and ignorance. What does true happiness consist of? Is ignorance bliss, or do knowledge and learning provide true happiness? Montag, in his belief that knowledge reigns, fights against a society that embraces and celebrates ignorance.
The fireman's responsibility is to burn books, and therefore destroy knowledge. Through these actions, the firemen promote ignorance to maintain the sameness of society. After befriending Clarisse, Montag finds himself unable to accept the status quo, believing life is more complete, true and satisfying when knowledge is welcomed into it. After making this discovery, Montag fights against ignorance, trying to help others welcome knowledge into their lives. For example, when his wife's friends come over, he forces them to listen to poetry. Although they become extremely upset after listening to what he reads, they are able to experience true emotion. In Montag's view, this emotion will give these women a fuller and more satisfying life.
Throughout the novel, Bradbury presents paradoxes between life and death. For example, Montag's wife Millie attempts suicide by swallowing sleeping pills. Montag discovers her, calls for emergency medical assistance and saves her life. During the time while the medical team is reviving Millie, it is unclear whether she will live or die. Montag learns through the medics that reviving suicide attempts is a very common act. The commonality of suicide attempts and saves blurs the line between life and death in this futuristic society. Upon realizing this, Montag begins to wonder what life truly is and why it feels so empty and dead.
Furthermore, the tool the medics use to pump Millie's stomach is referred to as the Electric-Eyed Snake, and the tool the firmen use to hunt down book owners is the Mechanical Hound, both inanimate objects that appear to have lives of their own. Montag finds himself wondering, are they alive or dead? In truth, in Montag's search for truth and knowledge, he is trying to give true life to his own existence and to prevent the cultural death of society.
Many people die in the novel. The old woman burns herself to death, Clarisse is killed by a speeding car, Montag kills Beatty with the flamethrower, and the Mechanical Hound kills an innocent man. Among all this destruction, Montag survives and is given new life, reborn after his trip down the river and after meeting Granger and taking the concoction to change his chemical balance. While Montag survives, the city and everyone he knew there are destroyed. Montag's interest in knowledge and dedication to a new and better society saved him. Thus, Bradbury seems to suggest that life is dependent on knowledge and awareness. If we become idle and complacent, we might as well be dead.
In the opening paragraph, the burning book pages are compared to birds trying to fly away. When Millie attempts suicide, Montag compares the tool used to save her to a snake. The Mechanical Hound is a dominant presence throughout the novel. The image of the salamander is dominant as well, as a symbol of the fireman. In addition, the story of the Pheonix plays a prominent role.
This animal imagery expresses the importance of nature in life. The lack of nature, or the manipulation of nature (i.e. the development of the Mechanical Hound), causes death and destruction. The only time animal imagery is positive in the entire novel is when Montag gets out of the river and encounters a deer. At first he thinks it is a Hound, but then realizes his mistake. The deer is peaceful, beautiful, and an expression of nature. This image welcomes Montag into his new life.
Technology in Bradbury's 24th century is highly advanced. Television screens take up entire parlor room walls and characters can speak directly to the listener, addressing him or her by name. Small seashell radios broadcast into people's ears throughout the day. People rely on inventions such as the Mechanical Hound and the snake-like tool used to save Millie's life after her suicide attempt. People drive cars at speeds of 150mph and above. Faber invents a small radio to be inserted in the ear through which he can communicate with Montag. Technology dominates society. Montag discusses this issue briefly with Clarisse and reflects on it as he opens up to the world of books. When he finally escapes his old life, the city is destroyed by atomic bombs (yet another example of negative technology), and Montag begins a simple life with very little technological tools as he sets out to rebuild society with Granger and the other intellectuals. Clearly, Bradbury is commenting on the negative influence of technological development in this world and the destructive potential of technology in our society.
At the opening of Part I, when Montag goes home, his bedroom is described at first as "not empty" and then as "indeed empty". Mildred is there, but her mind is floating away with the music of her seashell radio and she is almost lost to a sleeping pill overdose. This concept of paradoxes continues throughout the book, expressed in the conflicts between life and death mentioned earlier. Examples include the "electric-eyed snake" tool that the technicians use to revive Mildred, and the Mechanical Hound, which appears to be both machine and animal. Furthermore, this paradox exists in the concept of "truth" portrayed in the novel. Beatty's "truth" is a fabrication and manipulation of history. Actual truth is hidden from society, or more accurately, burned. Many people in Montag's life, including Millie and her friends, believe they live in reality when in fact they live in a superficial world dominated by television, government oppression and the media. Society is blind to the truth. Montag's discovery of the truth and his dedication to living a life of truth save him from the ultimate destruction bombs bring to the city.
Although it appears no character in Fahrenheit 451 holds any religious beliefs, Bradbury includes many religious references in this novel. The book Montag saves from the old woman's house is The Bible. Throughout his tribulations, Montag holds on to this book, reading it on the subway, showing it to Faber, and finally, with Granger and the other intellectuals, Montag agrees that The Bible is the book he will memorize in order to one day, in a new society, reprint. Furthermore, Montag compares Millie's friends to icons he saw in a church once but did not understand. Later on in the novel, Faber compares himself to water and Montag to fire, saying the cooperation of the two will produce wine. This is an allusion to the biblical story of the miracle at Cana where Christ transforms water into wine.
At the conclusion of the novel, Montag, Granger and the rest of the intellectuals walk up the river to find survivors of the ultimate atomic destruction of the city. In his walk, Montag remembers passages he read in his Bible from Ecclesiastes 3:1, "To everything there is a season," and Revelations 22:2, "And on either side of the river was there a tree of life...and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations." The apocalypse Montag has witnessed has clear connections to the apocalypse foreseen in the Bible.