Fahrenheit 451, Books and Truth

“I’m afraid of children my own age. They kill each other. Did it always used to be that way? My uncle says no. Six of my friends have been shot in the last year alone. Ten of them died in car wrecks. I’m afraid of them and they don’t like me because I’m afraid. My uncle says his grandfather remembered when children didn’t kill each other. But that was a long time ago when they had things different” (Clariasse, from ‘Fahrenheit 451’)

There is something dreadfully wrong with the world. These days, when a kid takes a gun to school and kills a bunch of his peers, unless it happens in our home town, we barely blink. It’s all old hat, it happens all the time.

What’s wrong with kids these days?” We ask, then click back onto Facebook or Twitter. The News is all depressing anyway, and what can we do about the state of the world? We can argue about who is to blame, of course, we can scream for more gun control or more security or more rules. We can blame it on the liberals or the conservatives, or the government or the jews or muslims or the atheists or whoever our favorite “they” is. It’s all their fault. It’s not our fault.

But, like Cariasse, some of us still resist the temptation to live our whole lives in that artificial reality. We like to smell the leaves and feel the snow on our faces or the grass between our toes. Perhaps we even remember a time when the kids didn’t kill each other, or we think that such a time must have existed. Surely there were kids who were raised right, on chores and sled riding and wading creeks searching for crayfish. Surely, it wasn’t always like this, and they weren’t addicted to their mobile devices by fifth grade. Perhaps people used to just sit and visit and have real conversations.

No front porches. My uncle says there used to be front porches. And people sat there sometimes at night, talking when they wanted to talk, rocking, and not talking when they didn’t want to talk. Sometimes they just sat there and thought about things, turned things over. My uncle says the architects got rid of the front porches because they didn’t look well. But my uncle says that was merely rationalizing it; the real reason, hidden underneath, might be they didn’t want people sitting like that, doing nothing, rocking, talking; that was the wrong KIND of social life. People talked too much. And they had time to think. So they ran off with the porches.” (Clariasse, Fahrenheit 451′)

In the book, “Fahrenheit 451”, written by Ray Bradbury in 1951, books are illegal. Firemen don’t put out fires, they burn books. At least we don’t do that, you might protest. At least, he got that part wrong. But, the books only became illegal after people stopped reading them. The law was a symptom of the disease. The disease was the loss of critical thinking, of true knowledge, not opinion based on what everyone says, but something far deeper, knowledge based in the confidence that truth has nothing to do with political parties or talking heads or the whims of society. Truth just is. (Bradbury didn’t write that, I did.) But, let’s get back to why this science fiction book sounds so prophetic for our current age.

And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind. The room was indeed empty. Every night the waves came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning. There had been no night in the last two years that Mildred had not swum that sea, had not gladly gone down in it for the third time.”

Bradbury envisioned ear buds and thought they would be far into the future, but as it turns out, it happened much more quickly:

In writing the short novel Fahrenheit 451 I thought I was describing a world that might evolve in four or five decades. But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog. I stood staring after them, absolutely stunned. The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera cries, sleep-walking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction.” (Ray Bradbury)

The main character in the novel, Montag, feels like he no longer knows his wife because her whole life has become an interaction with an imaginary world. She is plugged into this world all day and night. Three walls of her home are screens that constantly bombard her with bland entertainment. Entertainment with no depth, no context, no deeper meaning. Anything that would offend anyone has been edited out. And she wants the fourth wall torn out and changed into a screen too. Thinking for oneself has become obsolete in this world. Everything is form without substance. Bradbury never envisioned smart phones or lap tops, or electronic tablets, but he did voice his concern about a world that would lose itself in pointless entertainment to the point where no one would want to read a book of classic poetry or a Bible. Reading deep thoughts about deep topics might make them feel…something. It might make them sad or bring them to realize they were starving souls feeding on garbage. And maybe it sounds like I’m bashing technology. No, technology can’t be evil or good of itself. But we control it or it controls us. It kind of reminds one of all the science fiction stories where the robots take over and subdue the humans, only in this case, the humans become robots on their own.

Bradburys book isn’t long, only 158 pages, but he packs a lot into it. It was written over time, from revisions of revisions, from a novelette expanding into a novel, until he had no doubt pared away the fluff and reworked the descriptions until they are vivid, until the book speaks as he claims books should- with poetry infused prose. There is an undercurrent here of anti censorship, but he himself claimed the book was not mainly about censorship, but about a loss of intellectualism he feared was coming. People would cease to be disturbed by the things that should disturb them and without books to make them think deeply, they had chosen not to think at all about anything that mattered. There was no need to rig an election for example, because the majority would always vote for the candidate who talked the smoothest, dressed nicest and had the nicest hair.

There is a nagging sensation that I get when I read this book, as good as it is, similar to what I get watching a movie like “Dead poets society”. The feeling I get is that a point is being made that never seems to get to the point, if you follow me. Bradbury is promoting deep thinking and being informed and knowing that the world has more to offer us than the shallow tide of the trivial. And Dead Poet’s Society is promoting non conformity, again, thinking for one’s self, finding your own path. It’s all good advice that might start one’s quest for truth, but there is something more that needs to be said, or repeated. Truth isn’t your opinion. There is no “my truth” or “your truth”, no matter what Oprah may say. Truth just is. And while we are parked here, let’s talk about the current outrage against sexual harassment. A long time coming, by the sounds of things, but why are we even outraged at all if truth is relative? The harassers truth may be that what he or she is doing is morally ambivalent.

There are things worth standing for and things worth standing against. There is certainly a time to say. “ I won’t bow to your idols. “ whether that idol is fame or fortune or false religion or warped sexuality, or money or power. But without some higher standard, it’s all subjective. If you have your truth and I have mine, who is to say which is better? Maybe I like quiet Sunday afternoons and you prefer raping and pillaging. If I am just an animal with a bigger brain than most, the most I can say is that I find your preferences dreadful.

But, don’t you have a conscience?” You might protest.

Exactly! And where did my conscience come from? If you read this blog regularly, surely you knew I was going to end up quoting scripture eventually.

There is a way that seems right to a man, but it’s end is the way of death.” ( Proverbs 14:12)

Left to ourselves we will rebel, but often against the wrong things for the wrong reasons. It’s entirely possible to stand for death, and still think you’re in the right.

In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury refers to the Bible several times, with surprising respect. I say surprising because much science fiction I’ve read has little use for religion of any kind. He also uses a lot of profanity in his book, which ironically got edited out in one version used in schools, without his knowledge. Of course, he was royally ticked off about being censored. But, my point is, his use of the Bible is as a fine piece of literature and poetry, not as a standard for truth. And without a standard, I don’t see where standing against shallow thinking and bland entertainment gets us. Why is going deep important if it’s all relative anyway? Why not eat, drink and be merry without concern about wars and rumors of wars if we are nothing but worm food in the end? This is what kept pulling at the edges of my mind as I read this book and watched Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s society, urging us to “seize the day!”. Sadly, Robin Williams later took his own life. The question in the end isn’t whether he “sucked the marrow out of life” as he says in the movie, but whether he was prepared for the afterlife.

Ask yourself the deep questions, yes. Ask yourself why a lone many standing against tyranny, standing in front of a tank, inspires us. When and where is standing against the majority worthwhile? Is it really like the day I wore a Mickey Mouse shirt to work when everyone else was wearing “ Let’s go on strike” shirts? Or was that just arrogance on my part? What good is being a rebel if you don’t know what the cause is?

My answer is nothing new, it’s something quite old. The answers are still found in God’s book. The Scripture is the only foundation I trust to give the solution to all of this life’s questions. The fact is that I don’t always go there first, because of my pride. But it’s the only book that says it all, where all the answers hide if one only dives deep. The books in Fahrenheit 451 may seem like living things, but this one truly is, because the Spirit lives and breaths into and through it. Dive as deeply as you like. You’ll never reach the bottom.



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5 thoughts on “Fahrenheit 451, Books and Truth

  1. aleta

    Very well written, Loren. Sorta on the subject — was just watching the new Anne of Green Gables and although its a beautiful movie, modern & liberal ways of thinking have been shoved into it…so unlike what the writer would have written– another sign of the times. Not only is our future up for grabs, we are now even changing the simplicity of the past.

    • Seems like almost every old movie they re- make they mess up. Maybe we are just getting old, but it’s sad when they twist the writer’s original intentions.

  2. Anthony Paul

    “Panem et circenses”… not much at all has changed over the last 2000 years has it? This was a great piece and I enjoyed reading it very much. While it resonates powerfully as a reflection of my own personal thoughts, it is also so very frightening to realize that this is not just some op ed piece expressing someone’s vapid opinion on a currently recent event or personality… the horror of the reality of it is all too real. One big thing that we do at our house is READ… books, magazines, milk cartons, whatever… and they are all over the house (except for the milk cartons). That may sound messy but the truth is our 9 year old granddaughter sees this and, as children tend to mimic what they see us elders do, she has developed a deep sense of love and appreciation for the written word. As reading is not a chore for her as it was for me at that age, we feel that she is well on her way.

    Anyway, just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the article; and let’s try to remember that even those Romans had great thinkers like Seneca, Plutarch, and Cicero.

  3. I grew up on a farm, set back on a dead end road, with no neighbors in sight. We never had a TV growing up, but we had lots of work to do and we had books. Lots of books. Also, many of the people in my family and extended family (aunts and uncles) were writers of one sort or another. I can think of no better way to grow up. I like to say the love of books and writing is in my blood. For the most part, I think we have managed to pass this on to our children, although as they get older, the cell phones and computers consume more of their time.
    I really do fear for this generation, that they will lose the ability to think for themselves, because every answer to every question is just a click away. Actually, you don’t even have to click anymore, you can run your whole world online just by having the right computer device to speak into. It’s amazing and frightening at the same time.
    I do think, or hope, we will see a backlash of young people who want to return to the old ways and skills.
    Thanks for commenting!

  4. jesuswithoutbaggage

    Wild, thanks for the article. I really like Bradbury though I have never read this classic–and I even have a copy of it in my library! I have pulled it off the shelf so I can read it soon.

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Rachel Svendsen

Reading. Writing. Me.

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