Ray Bradbury has died. I read almost everything but, for some reason, science fiction leaves me cold. So I came to Bradbury’s famous novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953) late (I read it last year). It made a real impression on me.
This dystopian novel can be aligned with other famous works featuring book burning like Don Quixote and Jean Rhy’s ‘The Day They Burned the Books’. Fahrenheit 451 (to quote that unimpeachable academic source Wikipedia) is about ‘a future American society in which the masses are hedonistic and critical thought through reading is outlawed’. That’s interesting for two reasons: (1) the book is a defense of books and reading (more needed now in the age of the internet, social networking, and mass media) and (2) unlike Walter Benjamin, who thought technology would lead to a more progressive art and society, Ray Bradbury thought the opposite. In a 2007 interview, Bradbury said that the book explored the effects of television and mass media on the reading of literature. That puts him on the same side as Wordsworth (the Preface where he talked of the cheap sensationalism of Gothic novels) and Marxists like Frederic Jameson.
I was particularly impressed by Bradbury’s prescient depiction of Mildred Montag’s immersion in ‘an electronic ocean of sound’ through the little Seashells or tiny radios clamped to her ears. When I came to Boston earlier this year, travelling by subway was a little disorienting for me: I wondered about the immersion of my fellow passengers in their IPods or IPhones and their brutal indifference to their surroundings and the guy sitting next to them. Mildred also watches programs on her large TV screen (think of our Indian homes). Bradbury’s critique of the anti-intellectual, hedonistic American society he depicts has a social dimension (the novel was written in the Cold War, post-World War II era):
We’ve started and won two atomic wars since 2022! Is it because we are having so much fun at home we’ve forgotten the world? Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are? I’ve heard rumors; the world is starving, but we’re well fed.
When I read this, I couldn’t but relate it to contemporary India where we (the middle classes) are so delighted with our new prosperity (of course shining India has lost much of its sheen lately) that no one any longer talks of the poor. (I’d have to add the caveat that socialist India may have been hypocritical in its concern for the poor).
My favourite quote from Fahrenheit 451 is: ‘There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; …You don’t stay for nothing’.