Wednesday, July 9, 2014

"Fahrenheit 451" Sends Sparks Flying

When I woke up Saturday at 7:30am and saw Hurricane Arthur was still pouring down on us, I was excited. A rainy day meant I could stay inside and read, without the self-imposed guilt of not running or swimming. I made myself eggs and coffee and peanut butter toast, and enjoyed breakfast in bed while finishing listening to Jim Dale narrate J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. You can imagine my disappointment when, around 9 o'clock, I saw a corner of blue sky in the distance, and when by 11, the storm had passed and it was a beautiful day outside.

After some self-debating, I decided that, rainy day or not, I would stick with my original plan of a day spent reading. I grabbed my summer reading book, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, went upstairs on the deck, and didn't come down until I finished it five hours later. Neither the book nor myself are entirely the same.

I lapped up the words on these pages like the flames in the book that burned books like these. As an aspiring English and Theatre double major, I am often met with, "Good luck finding a job." As an English-Theatre double major wanting to go to a private liberal arts college, I am also faced with, "Good luck paying off your loans." Over the past year, I have had to defend my passions and dreams and why they're worth it more than ever. I am grateful to those who have challenged me to come up with a quantifiable reason to defend my love for literature and theatre, rather than the subjective and cliché (although accurate), "Because I love it and I want to do what I love to do." Bradbury's dystopian novel sums up the importance of literature in a brilliant 165 pages. For anyone who has ever questioned the importance of literature, approach Fahrenheit 451 with a red ink pen and be prepared to battle.

The novel is set in a future America where books are illegal. Firemen no longer extinguish fires, but create them, going around and burning books. Captain Beatty, the captain of the firehouse where the protagonist Guy Montag works, explains to Montag the importance of the firemen, calling them, "custodians of our peace of mind."
"With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word 'intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. Sure you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally 'bright,' did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against." (Bradbury 58)
Montag, a fireman for ten years, has doubts. Unlike the robots the government has created through immersive technological stimulation (of which include wall TVs and radio earplugs, not unlike some of the technology we have today), Montag recognizes the emptiness of the lives people are living: conversing to a computer, talking a lot but meaning little, driving 130 miles down the highway and only seeing the world in blurred colors. After Montag's meeting with Beatty, he vents to his distracted wife about his frustration.
"Jesus God," said Montag. "Every hour so many damn things in the sky! How in hell did those bombers get up there every single second of our lives! Why doesn't someone want to talk about it! We've started and won two atomic wars since 1990! Is it because we're 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. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we're hated so much? I've heard the rumors about hate, too, once in a long while, over the years. Do you know why? I don't, that's sure! Maybe the books can get us half out of the cave. They just might stop us from making the same damn mistakes! I don't hear those idiot bastards in your parlor talking about it. God, Millie, don't you see? An hour a day, two hours, with these books, and maybe..." (Bradbury 73-74)
At a loss for someone who will listen, Montag seeks out a retired English professor named Faber. Montag rants about the importance of books, but Faber tells him the magic of books is not in the books at all.
"It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the 'parlor families' today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it's not books at all you're looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. 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. " (Bradbury 82-83)
Books are just one way we make sense of the world. The other day I wrote about how I want to explore the world through theatre, but really, I want to explore it through all art: visual art, music, literature, and theatre. All artists take a stab at universal, age-old themes like peace, war, love, and death. Sometimes they miss the mark, but other times they strike it right in the heart, whether it be for a generation of people or just one person, whether that be for the artist's self or the reader or observer. Either way, the conversations and questions continue.

"My wife says books aren't 'real,'" Montag tells Faber shortly after his outburst with his wife.

"Thank God for that," Faber says. "You can shut them, say, 'Hold on a moment'" (Bradbury 84).

Faber explains that a good book has three things. Number one: "quality of information. Number two: leisure to digest it. And number three: the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two" (Bradbury 85). We are told so many things in one day. We are told what to eat, what to wear, what to think, who to look like, what to buy, where to live, when to sleep...from dozens of sources, many of which shove it down our throats. Books allow us to digest the information and form our own opinions.

"Oh, there are many actors alone who haven't acted Pirandello or Shaw or Shakespeare for years because their plays are too aware of the world," Faber tells Montag (Bradbury 87). "Books aren't real," Montag's wife says? Books are too real, apparently. Books show us reality. They aren't always pretty, but life isn't pretty. Are we supposed to live in ignorance? Let ourselves be tossed by the waves, float merrily downstream, and never try to fight against the current?

Later in the story, Montag meets an ex-writer named Granger, who elaborates on the importance of books.
"There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we're doing the same thing, over and over, but we've got one damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly things we've done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we'll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember every generation." (Bradbury 163)
Whether the stories are fictional or true accounts, they're history. Even if Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 over 60 years ago, we see that even back then–when technology wasn't as progressive as today–people feared a world in which people didn't think for themselves, a world in which people were brainwashed into mindlessness and frivolity. In one way, it's comforting to think people decades and centuries ago had similar fears as we do today, and in another, it's dismaying. Wouldn't we have figured out the solutions by now? It would be nice to think so, but in many cases, we haven't, which is why we must keep writing about these problems in the hopes that, like Granger explained, a few more people remember the problems ever generation, and can make progress toward finding a solution. Without the written accounts, we will forget that, as reported in Carrie Halperin's and Sean Patrick Farrell's New York Times video, "California's Extreme Drought, Explained," in the summer of 2014, California was in a drought for the third year in a row, with the risk of a million acres catching fire with potentially over a billion dollars worth of damage. We will forget that Governor Jerry Brown called upon California residents to reduce their water usage by 20%, and yet it only reduced by 5%. Twenty years from now, will we find ourselves in an even worse situation, wondering, "How did we not see it coming?"

Thank God we don't live in a society where firemen burn books, but I'm fearful when people question the importance of literature. I'm frustrated when people ask me why I don't just keep writing and theatre as a "hobby." Yes, literature is not always tangible and yes, literature is subjective, and that it why it is important. It teaches us that sometimes we have to be satisfied with the discontent of not having an absolute answer. It smashes our framed black and white pictures and spills water over them so the colors blur and we're not exactly sure what is what, so we have to listen to our gut. It brings us forward and backward in time, allows us to see the world through different lenses, and learn from our mistakes.

A book is knowledge, is light, is fire, is consuming. Is it a coincidence that a book has to be incinerated to be destroyed? But when you clash knowledge with knowledge, like the unfortunate Victor Frankenstein should have foreseen when the lightning bolt (knowledge) struck the tree (knowledge), you just get burned. Whether you're a literature advocate looking to fuel your case, or a literature skeptic, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is sure to spark some heated conversation.


Shelby Helen said...

Such an awesome book!!!!

Anonymous said...

LOVE this book!!!