Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Fahrenheit 451: The Future Is Now

          I recently watched the film version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I had resisted seeing it — or reading the novel, which was published in 1953 — because I thought I already knew the drill (and I was right): books are good (very, very good); book burning is bad (very, very bad). Reading makes you a better, more compassionate human being. The book burner is depicted as a uniformed fascist. People who don’t read are lacking in feeling; they are, as the main character calls them, “zombies.”
          In Bradbury’s world of the future books are a dire threat to a regimented society in which everyone should be an obedient, unthinking automaton. Thus there are firemen, whose job is to seek out hidden books and burn them. Reading is done in secret; in the case of one woman, her books are so precious to her that she chooses to burn with them.
          But the future is now, and it turns out that there was no need for flamethrowers. Indifference will do the job quite nicely. A book unwanted is as dead as one in ashes.
          True, there are books galore being published every year. But — and this is a vital distinction — how many of those books qualify as the type that Bradbury was holding up to be cherished? In this day of polls one should be conducted in which a million Americans, selected at random, are asked if they’ve read twelve books from the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century list (this list is restricted works written in English; I don’t agree with many of their choices, but I want to use an “official” source). The books selected for my poll should not be taught in high school or college (Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby), nor should they be difficult reading (Ulysses, Under the Volcano) or notorious (Lolita, Portnoy’s Complaint). Here are a dozen which would do quite nicely: Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, John Dos Passos’ U.S.A., Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale, Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle, E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius.
          Based on my observations of the world around me, far from academia, I believe that less than 5% of those polled would have read even one of the books.
          But I have a fresh argument supporting the decline-of-reading theory. It has to do with a phenomenon that has almost disappeared: the novel serialized in a magazine or newspaper. I was already aware that crowds would gather awaiting the next installment of a Dickens’ novel, not only in London but in Paris, Moscow and New York. A little research produced the following list, a kind of sampler, of other novels first published serially: Far From the Madding Crowd, The Three Musketeers, Anna Karenina, Portrait of a Lady, Vanity Fair, Pere Goriot, Around the World in 80 Days, Middlemarch, Tender is the Night, The Way We Live Now, Treasure Island, The Magnificent Ambersons, Crime and Punishment, Germinal, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Madame Bovary, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Age of Innocence.
          Some are mainly entertainment (though on a high level). Others are serious literature. Yet people wanted to read the next installment. A magazine or newspaper would print these novels only if doing so was financially beneficial to them.
          I wrote that the serial novel has “almost” disappeared. For the right material an audience still exists. Rolling Stone published Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities in biweekly installments and Armistad Maupin’s Tales of the City ran for years in the San Francisco Chronicle. Both were topical, controversial, and extremely readable (with Wolfe’s novel on the literature side of the scale and Maupin’s on the entertainment end). But there are so few examples of such successes! Today only a handful of large circulation magazines are left that publish a single short story. Certainly none would serialize a National Book Award winner; that type of fiction has little appeal for the general public. As for what does make big bucks, the novels of the same dozen authors dominate the bestseller list, each providing their formulaic popcorn for the mind. The twelve books I selected from the Modern Library list are accessible to the reader; they have originality and substance. They are not outdated (there’s no expiration date on excellence). They will have emerged to the awareness of one who loves good books.
          In Bradbury’s futuristic world enough people loved good books to necessitate squads of fireman to ferret them out. Today we are free to read, and some do; but the vast majority, after their formal education ends, don’t.
          Which brings up another aspect of Fahrenheit 451 to consider: whether the death of the book (death by indifference) has had the dire results predicted by Bradbury. In the era when reading was most popular were people more compassionate? A quick study of 19th and early 20th century history gives us the answer. The same year that Londoners were weeping over the death of Little Nell, British military might was forcing China to allow opium to be unloaded in its port cities (the poppy was grown in India, another British colony, and the Chinese population presented a large market for addiction). Wars abounded in the 1800's, and the factors that led to World War I were inexorably moving into place. That catastrophe would never have happened if enough enlightened minds in England, France, Russia and Germany had prevailed. Yet two gunshots in Sarajevo set off a lockstep to a gruesome folly, while crowds cheered. And besides the warfare, these societies were dominated by greed, on both the personal and the national level. The poor were neglected and exploited in a brutish way.
          I only need to look at myself, a lifelong reader, and ask “Am I a better person for having read a lot of books?” I have to answer “No.” I have merely been entertaining myself. I look at my non-reading friends and I do not see unfeeling zombies. I’m no better than most (many are better human beings than I am). Has reading made me more intelligent (as some claim it does)? I do believe that reading quality work exercises the mind. But what of the restaurant owner, the real estate agent, the crane operator? Are they not, in their jobs, constantly working out difficult problems?
          An argument against the uplifting effects of great literature is found in the biographies of the men and women who produced it. Many led miserable lives, and a good number did much damage to others in their personal relationships. In today’s literary world, among both the successes and the failures, I observe much contention, jealousy, callousness — even maliciousness. Where’s the wisdom, the openness, the compassion?
          At the end of Fahrenheit 451 the Montag character, once a fireman but transformed by the power of the written word into a reader, finds refuge in a community of Book People. It is portrayed as a serene, pastoral, kindly world of the enlightened. Each person in this community memorizes a complete book; they become a living version of it. They pass on the words to a young person who also memorizes it and who will keep it alive. The actual book is destroyed; the idea behind this (I guess) is that books are living things and rightly exist in a flesh and blood form. In a commentary that accompanied the film, Bradbury says that he never sees the ending without tears coming to his eyes.
          I remained dry-eyed. Those enlightened souls smiling benevolently as they strolled past one another, each in their little world, seemed like inmates of an asylum. I couldn’t accept the destroying of books when the point (I thought) was that they shouldn’t be destroyed; besides, the existence of a work in print protects it from unexpected death or faulty memory. As for that whole memorization requirement, I shudder at the idea of my having to tackle Vanity Fair; it’s a great novel — but ye gads, man! Anyway, isn’t the idea of dedicating yourself to one book mighty restricting? I want to read new ones, enter new worlds. No, I wouldn’t be happy in Bradbury’s Utopia.
         Though, like him, my personal belief is that works of art, in whatever form they take, should survive. Survive for me and for others who care. If a time comes when no one cares, they should still survive, for who knows if a renaissance may follow us. I don’t hold much hope for that, but it’s of no great concern to me. I’m allowed to read whatever I please, and that will have to suffice. I’m sorry that literature is dying, but there’s nothing I (or Ray Bradbury) can do about it.

(Originally appeared, in a different form, in Monsters and Critics)

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