Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)

Posted: September 26, 2014 in fiction
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It’s always interesting to find the receipt stuck in the back of a book (I use receipts as bookmarks) and think about my life as it was when I made the purchase. According to the receipt, I bought my copy of Fahrenheit 451 ten years ago in a store that has since closed. It was a chain store in my hometown, so I can picture the huge windows in the front, the regulated stacks, the cheerful signage, the in-house coffee shop. It was a little like the Walmart of bookstores. But the town I grew up in doesn’t have enough readers to support a bookstore, which is one of the reasons I no longer actually call it home. Ten years ago I was a newlywed, and the ex and I went everywhere together. The only memory I have of her in that store was the time we ran into two of my friends from high school. Of the two, she came across as perpetually angry and he as a major stoner, which isn’t how either of them was when we were close. I think that my friend’s anger came from the fact that our friend had become so comfortable with mind-altering substances; we met her again a few years later and she was fairly happy, secure in herself and her life. After the visit, the ex said, “Now I can understand why you were such good friends.” First impressions aren’t generally reliable.

Why am I going on about this? Because I’ve just finished reading a book on the importance of memory.

One of them had to stop burning. The sun wouldn’t, certainly. So it looked as if it had to be Montag and the people he had worked with until a few short hours ago. Somewhere the saving and putting away had to begin again and someone had to do the saving and keeping, one way or another, in books, in records, in people’s heads, any way at all so long as it was safe, free from moths, silverfish, rust and dry-rot, and men with matches. The world was full of burning of all types and sizes. Now the guild of the asbestos weaver must open shop very soon.

Yeah, people say that it’s about books, and in one sense it is, but I think that books are a vehicle to talk about something else.

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.

Montag’s society has lost books, but they’ve also lost the world itself. They flip on the television to distract themselves, and live in a constant state of distraction. They don’t enjoy life. One of the opening scenes involves Montag’s wife accidentally overdosing on sleeping pills and getting her stomach pumped. It happens so frequently the medical technicians come to people’s houses instead of dragging them to the hospital. The techs don’t have any medical training, either; they know where to stick the tubes, they run their machines, then they move on to the next house. Reckless driving and suicide are fairly common. They don’t value their lives.

Bradbury seems to see this as a consequence of their lifestyle. People avoid contact with nonhuman life, and with their own emotions. Television manufactures relationships with the unreal, and if not managed appropriately, those fictive relationships can take the place of real ones. My mom leaves the TV on when she goes out so the cats feel like there is a human presence in the house with them, and I watch an unreasonable amount of television to distract myself from the unbearable loneliness of my real life. Like the other great dystopias of the twentieth century, this book is about the government taking control of our emotional lives. The essential freedom is the freedom to be honest with ourselves and others about our feelings; without that self-awareness and the ability to communicate it, there is no independent identity.

Books tend to fuck with our illusions. Behold, the reaction to a reading of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”:

Mrs Phelps was crying.

The others in the middle of the desert watched her crying grow very loud as her face squeezed itself out of shape. They sat, not touching her, bewildered with her display. She sobbed uncontrollably. Montag himself was stunned and shaken.

“Sh, sh,” said Mildred. “You’re all right, Clara, now, Clara, snap out of it! Clara, what’s wrong?”

“I – I,” sobbed Mrs Phelps, “don’t know, don’t know, I just don’t know, oh, oh . . .”

Mrs Bowles stood up and glared at Montag. “You see? I knew it, that’s what I wanted to prove! I knew it would happen! I’ve always said poetry and tears, poetry and suicide and crying and awful feelings, poetry and sickness; all that mush! Now I’ve had it proved to me. You’re nasty, Mr Montag, you’re nasty!”

Faber said, “Now. . .”

Montag felt himself turn and walk to the wall slot and drop the book in through the brass notch to the waiting flames.

“Silly words, silly words, silly awful hurting words,” said Mrs Bowles. “Why do people want to hurt people? Not enough hurt in the world, you got to tease people with stuff like that!”

“Clara, now, Clara,” begged Mildred, pulling her arm. “Come on, let’s be cheery, you turn the ‘family’ on now. Go ahead. Let’s laugh and be happy now, stop crying, we’ll have a party!”

In Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, there’s a moment when one of the bad guys (Anne Wirthlass-Schitt) gets caught in a book of poetry and ends up trying to save someone. When asked to explain, Thursday says that our response to poetry reveals who we really are. The suicide and tears aren’t in the poetry; they’re in the people reading it. To borrow a phrase from Zora Hurston, poetry calls our souls from their hiding places. It reintroduces us to ourselves. One of the products of reading is self-awareness, which I suppose is why reading leads me to write such long articles about myself.

Mrs Phelps has plenty of reason to cry.

“When do you suppose the war will start?” he said. “I notice your husbands aren’t here tonight?”

“Oh, they come and go, come and go,” said Mrs Phelps. “In again out again Finnegan, the Army called Pete yesterday. He’ll be back next week. The Army said so. Quick war. Forty-eight hours, they said, and everyone home. That’s what the Army said. Quick war. Pete was called yesterday and they said he’d be back next week. Quick . . .”

The three women fidgeted and looked nervously at the empty mud-colored walls.

“I’m not worried,” said Mrs Phelps. “I’ll let Pete do all the worrying.” She giggled. “I’ll let old Pete do all the worrying. Not me. I’m not worried.”

“Yes,” said Millie. “Let old Pete do the worrying.”

“It’s always someone else’s husband dies, they say.”

“I’ve heard that, too. I’ve never known any dead man killed in a war. Killed jumping off buildings, yes, like Gloria’s husband last week, but from wars? No.”

This book reminds me so much of my 1980s childhood that the first time I read it, I filtered out all mentions of war until it actually comes to the town at the end of the novel. The Cold War made the threat of mutual destruction normal, banal, uninteresting. The Russians were going to come and either destroy or enslave us all; this was an accepted part of my daily life. Sometimes there were frantic repetitions of the party line, as with Mrs Phelps, but by then they were less frequent. The constantness of the threat had inured the public to its severity. After all, it’s always someone else’s husband who dies. My grandpa made it through World War II; my dad made it through Vietnam; when the Russians come for us, we’ll survive that too. When I was nineteen, I saw Red Dawn, and I thought it was one of the most frightening movies I’d ever seen – not because of the Russian-Cuban invasion of the United States, that part felt familiar and even oddly reassuring, but because the redneck teenagers were so ready to become child soldiers. I don’t want my kids to have that kind of access to weaponry. On rereading Fahrenheit 451, though, I see that it’s a book drenched in the threat of war; it’s just that my childhood was spent blocking out the threat of war, and now I’m really good at it. No one I knew was involved in the first Gulf War, so it was easy to see it as entirely separate from my life.

For everyone nowadays knows, absolutely is certain, that nothing will ever happen to me. Others die, I go on. There are no consequences and no responsibilities. Except that there are. But let’s not talk about them, eh? By the time the consequences catch up with you, it’s too late, isn’t it, Montag?

And that’s still true. September 11, 2001, was such a tragic day because suddenly we had to stop telling ourselves this lie. We’ve lulled ourselves back into a sense of security since then, which seems fairly obvious from the actions of the US Department of Defense. Sure, we can keep supporting Israel while they act like Nazi Germany; that’s never going to come back and bite us in the ass. If they were annexing sections of Czechoslovakia, we’d be losing our shit; but it’s just those little Arab countries that we can’t even identify on a map, so it’s okay. I mean, they’re not even white. I saw a New York Times piece about nuclear disarmament – apparently the Russians are working ahead of schedule and we’re way behind, and I’m really uncomfortable identifying with the country with the most nuclear warheads. Think of it as a neighborhood; we don’t attack the family next door because we like them, not because they have a lot of guns. In fact, when I see a family with a ton of guns, I avoid them whenever possible. Or, in cowboy terms, the most effective way to ensure that people are going to shoot you is to get a reputation as the fastest gun in the West.

But, books.

I spent my early childhood afraid. I wasn’t involved in any physical abuse, but my dad was undiagnosed bipolar and wouldn’t allow himself to use drugs or alcohol, so he self-medicated by hitting his older children. I was too little, but still petrified of him. My parents divorced a year before the Wall fell, so that gave me a different set of things to be afraid of. My mom has spent forty years creating and feeding a sense of insecurity in her children, delighting in their failures, finding the flaws in their successes, sucking the joy out of our lives unless it is a reflection of her own schadenfreude. After all, if you meet your children’s emotional needs, they’ll just be dependent on you for the rest of your life (the exact opposite of all the research in attachment theory, by the way – I showed all the signs of child abuse except poor academic performance). My older siblings seemed to form a clique that I could never belong to, despite occasional forays into togetherness, so I spent most of my time playing alone. I drew pictures of the toys that I wanted, colored them and cut them out, and played with the scraps of paper. I also read. A lot. I learned to read before I went to kindergarten, and reading was my favorite thing. I was more comfortable in the library than I was in my own home. I lived almost entirely in my imagination; I didn’t make close friends until I was eighteen. My social development still feels about ten years behind my peer group; I hit my adolescent rebellion around age thirty, when I was married and had kids. Five years later I’m mostly better, but I never feel quite mature enough. When I was a kid, the world seemed content to leave me out of it, too: once my mother went out with a bunch of her kids, but left my teenage sister home supposedly alone – they had forgotten that I was there too. If my sister hadn’t stayed, I would have been left home alone. A nine-year-old who lives in books is not likely to be a danger to himself or others, but the having been forgotten damages him. But there are the books, right? Books don’t say awful things about you; books have people who are more similar to you than the people you see in your real life; no one expects you to love them because you were born into the same family or attend the same school or church. Books have brighter colors and happier endings than the real world, and more than anything, I needed the hope that they provide. Then I married someone who taught me that my feelings are important, and books have been teaching me about myself ever since.

She had a very thin face like the dial of a small clock seen faintly in a dark room in the middle of a night when you waken to see the time and see the clock telling you the hour and the minute and the second, with a white silence and a glowing, all certainty and knowing what it had to tell of the night passing swiftly on toward further darknesses, but moving also toward a new sun.

Or in other words, Clarisse had a face like a book. The glowing certainty of books got me through the long night of childhood and has helped me move toward new sources of light.

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