News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 18, 2012

FLASHPOINT: The burning questions of ‘Fahrenheit 451’

Gary Daily
Terre Haute

TERRE HAUTE — For 10 years now, with vital local support and the occasional grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Vigo County Public Library has been organizing programs and facilitating discussions of a book the entire Wabash Valley community reads. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Big Read organizing committee. Needless to say, opinions in this column are mine and mine alone.) As you no doubt have heard, this year’s book selection is Ray Bradbury’s, “Fahrenheit 451.”

Born in 1920 and still writing, Ray Bradbury grew up reading in libraries from Waukegan to Tucson to Los Angeles. He remembers as a child reading about and lamenting the burning of the great library of ancient Alexandria. He never attended college. Libraries were his advanced degree schools, works of great literature his curricula. Bradbury has mined the riches of his reading and drawn on this fertile capital throughout his career. He wrote “Fahrenheit 451” in the UCLA library in nine days of intensive work. He fed dimes into a rental typewriter in the basement. At 10 cents a half-hour, it cost him $9.80.

Bradbury wrote a story a week for over 40 years. His creative energy is amazing. The content and quality of his short stories, novels, movie scripts and plays is even more so. Bradbury’s work is gripping, poetic and insightful. His fiction takes the reader on trips across the universe, from the eerie red desert landscape of Mars (“The Martian Chronicles”) to recognizable Green Town, U.S. A. (“Dandelion Wine”). However, his galactic reach and the nostalgic sentiment of hometown memories do not circumscribe or restrict Bradbury’s creative force. Reading Bradbury makes us think, gives us something to haunt our consciousness. As is true of all literature of significance, when you finish reading “Fahrenheit 451” you are not finished with what “Fahrenheit 451" is saying to you.  

“Fahrenheit 451” immerses the reader in a recognizable society. It is a dystopia too close for comfort. Based on some of his stories of the late 1940s and first published in 1953, “Fahrenheit 451” presciently conjures up reality/participatory TV shows filling wall size plasma screens, mass addiction to “superorganize[d] super-super sports” displacing individual purpose, artificial beauty dissolving authenticity, drugs clogging human feelings. Most of all, it is a world designed to eliminate questions. And questions of significance are seen as criminal acts.

This is what Bradbury’s dystopia adds up to:

“Life is immediate, … everything bang, boff and wow … More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience. … There you have it Montag. It didn’t come from the government down. … Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick. …” And perhaps Bradbury’s most damning predictive insight can be seen in how mesmerized we are today by what he calls “noncombustible data” — information without context, news reduced to scream headlines, classics of literature sliced and diced into digests and mini-series, condensations standing in for the polished masterpiece. All re-enforced by interminable drilling and testing of students, the bounding technology which encourages Twitter thought bites, and computer distractions which steal our powers of attention and comprehension.

Bang, boff, and wow … indeed.

Books are burned in “Fahrenheit 451.” But in Bradbury’s view “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Reading works of literary quality and demanding non-fiction continues to decline in this country. A fire bell in the night? Alarmist concerns or a nightmare unfolding? Do we already live in the world Bradbury describes? If we do, do we adjust to it? Resist it? Ignore it? 

For the 2012 Big Read, read Ray Bradbury’s troubling, question-provoking, very combustible novel, “Fahrenheit 451.” Discuss it with others. Program schedules of related events are available at the Vigo County Public Library downtown. Hurry. This library is only one of two remaining in our community. Three have been closed. Ray Bradbury could write a good story on this development and what it means.

— Gary Daily

Terre Haute