On Literary Censorship: Fahrenheit 451
Speculative science fiction is a bit of a strange genre. It’s still new territory for me, comparatively, but I find it endlessly fascinating. For the most part it just seems like a bunch of people sitting around “what if”-ing the worst possible scenarios and letting the stories run their course. At least, I haven’t run across too many especially hopeful versions. I’m open to suggestions.
Trouble is, we get it in our heads that speculative science fiction is predictive because modern society looks like the veritable hellscape depicted in the things we read. Reading 1984 in college gave me levels of existential anxiety I had really never come across in literature before, because what I was seeing in the world around me in 2015/16 and what I was reading in this fictional book about a dystopian future from the perspective of someone living in 1949 were far too close for comfort. I haven’t been able to pick it up and read it again since the first read through. The more I think about certain aspects of it, the more I can see something like them popping up in our culture. Surveillance, the editing of history, taking and forcing everything a person in power says to be true, regardless of whether it is or not.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 didn’t have quite the same existential-crisis-level impact when I read it for the first time a few months ago, but it too is oddly relevant to the times we live in now. One of its most fascinating puzzles is that no one — not even Bradbury himself — seems quite able to decide what the novel is actually about. On the one hand, you have the argument that it’s a work about censorship. On the other, one that says it’s about the evils of technology. While these are the two most prominent strains of thought I’ve found, they are by no means the only ones. There is evidence throughout the book itself to support both of these points.
Guy Montag’s wife is constantly connected to and obsessed with being around her television “family” and installing as many screens in her house as the walls will allow. In the beginning of the novel we see her near-successful suicide attempt, and by the end of the novel she has screens on almost all four walls, totally enveloped in a cocoon of unreality. The world outside seems both pale and terrifying in comparison to the one she watches. She escapes entirely into her technology, almost never engaging in actual conversation with anyone around her. You don’t need to look too far to see something similar happening now.
Not that I’m shaming anyone, necessarily. The world is terrifying right now and no avenue of connection should be cheapened. Due to various personal limitations, a lot of my more insightful and meaningful connections happen through social media. My most meaningful connections, however, have fortunately come based on in-person communication. But even those are predominantly maintained through social media. I wish this weren’t true. If I could drive, or lived close enough to walk to the people who matter the most, they’d never be able to get rid of me. As it is, if I want to see them I have to ask them to come to me. Factor in work schedules and general life issues everyone deals with, and technology provides the most readily available avenue to maintain the relationship.
Ask Bradbury what he thinks 451 is about and one of the things he says is that it’s not about censorship, but about how poisonous technology is. How it can numb your brain and become more of a danger to society because it wipes out our ability to think for ourselves. Certainly within the context of the book this seems true. The whole reason the books of the novel’s world get burned is because they provide an avenue for dangerous thought, and because having them around forced people to confront things they found too uncomfortable to bear. Technology in modern society, though, is more complex than that. Yes, I firmly believe things like social media are designed to be addictive. They are hotbeds for misinformation in a time where most people seem to take things on sight without the step of vetting its veracity. Unplugging from them can be incredibly beneficial for mental health and quality time.
On the other hand there are technological advancements that are not only beneficial, but necessary. Take the medical field. I can think of at least three people in my immediate family who have directly benefited from advanced technology in medicine. Pacemakers, MRIs, even prosthetics have eased the burden for people in need — who might otherwise have more or less stagnated in a society that has no problem leaving them behind — and allowed them to lead more fulfilling lives.
More ironic than the “evils of television” angle, though, is the idea that the book is about censorship. That isn’t to say there isn’t evidence to support it, I suppose, but it’s a much different kind of censorship than is normally thought of. The censorship in the world of Fahrenheit 451 functions differently than, say, Orwell’s 1984. Fahrenheit’s censorship is based on fear and societal upset, not government mandate. They get rid of books because they upset people, force them to confront subjects and ideas that make them uncomfortable. Anything that makes anyone even the slightest bit uncomfortable gets burned, which is why there is essentially nothing left. The irony, of course, is that Bradbury’s book has been banned and challenged throughout its publication history. As recently as 2006 it had been challenged at a school in Texas for “discussions of being drunk, smoking cigarettes, violence, ‘dirty talk’, reference to the Bible, and using God’s name in vain” — all things I’m pretty sure I’ve heard in any given day pretty much the world over.
While the idea of censoring a book largely believed to be about censorship seems laughable, the culture of fear and paranoia depicted in the book is very real and relevant. The society we live in has built itself around the monster influence of media — despite how easy such media is for virtually anyone to manipulate. Fact checking feels far more important than ever, but at the same time the barrage of information we have access to can sometimes be intimidating. The natural inclination seems less to investigate things for yourself and more to take people you trust on their word…no matter what their word is based on.
Bradbury’s novel is less about the burning and censorship of books, or even about the mind-numbing powers of television, than it is a mourning of the loss of the ideas within them. I have had plenty of conversations with people where they proudly proclaimed they didn’t read, and once even got into a debate with a close friend of mine about the importance of reading novels. He believed there was nothing they could do to expand ideas because everything in them was made up. I patiently but passionately explained to him that the value lie in the way they can help readers exercise empathy, and provided exposure to ideas and creative ways of thinking he may not have thought about before. I don’t remember if we ever reached an agreement, or if we merely stayed at the impasse, but I thought about it while reading Fahrenheit.
I hadn’t read Fahrenheit 451 before deciding to do this project. I wasn’t required to in high school and was really only exposed to Bradbury’s work in passing. Despite that, I felt inclined to cover it for Banned Books Month. The idea that art is dangerous because it makes you think is the whole seed of my issue with banning. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: reading books that challenge you is only ever a helpful and eye-opening experience. It breaks down a barrier for deeper conversation about things we’re all trying to understand. It can be uncomfortable, thrilling, exciting. The one thing about it that people who set out to ban or challenge books they don’t think their children should read seem to miss is its potential as a connective experience. Let your children form their own opinions about things, but never shy away from talking about them. Banning only serves to heighten the temptation, anyway.
Just ask Guy Montag.
Find the first article in my Banned Books series, on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, here.