About this time two years ago we were getting ready to open a staged adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 at the Lord Leebrick Theatre (now the OCT) in Eugene, Oregon. I loved working on that show, and seeing that Aquila Theatre is bringing their own version of Fahrenheit 451 to the Luther community provided me with a good excuse to rummage around in the old notes I compiled while directing it. Now, I’d like to share a bit about why I think we should continue to let Ray Bradbury’s work challenge us.
Not long ago, you couldn’t get Ray Bradbury’s books on any form of electronic device. He hated the devices and what they represented for him, the “big distraction” of the internet. For years he resisted electronic publication. A short time before his death, however, he relented under the threat that no other editions would ever be printed if they were not accompanied by the right to publish electronically.
You can’t fight the tide forever.
Now, I should say that I don’t want to spiral into taking up Bradbury’s position on new media. I am, after all, writing a blog post with no life on the printed page. In fact, I think that we are very fortunate to live in a time of unprecedented access to information and ideas for many (though certainly not all) through this great buzzing distraction. And, especially after our recent move to Decorah in which I hauled a couple hundred pounds worth of books with us, I like having some books on light electronic devices.
But books aren’t really the point.
As I have said before, Fahrenheit 451 is about books and censorship in the same way that Moby Dick is about whaling.
Yes, but not really.
It is about serious engagement with ideas and the many ways we avoid it.
Last year, Farhad Manjoo wrote a great article (with the fantastic title “You Won’t Finish This Article”) about the kind of reading that happens online. Since reading it, the article has bounced around in my mind. Though I am not going to digest all the numbers here, I think some of the revelations are useful. Primarily, that the data Manjoo cites shows that, in general, those of us who read articles online typically get about 50-60 percent of the way through before we skip away to something else, online or otherwise. Most of us simply don’t engage in a significant way with the material through to the end.
Now, I know that there is not a direct correlation between these online articles and, say, the way we read a full-length novel. Still, how many books do you have with lonely little bookmarks in the middle? I, for one, can see two staring back at me right now. I know there are plenty of others.
My limited engagement with these books is not without reasons, either. Some of them good reasons. I have other interests, I work (and I have other reading that I must do that is work related), I have family, friends, and sometimes I just want something easy in my increasingly precious downtime. Should I really feel guilty that I choose to spread my leisure time between things that challenge me and other entertainments that are simple fun? After all, books are not inherently complex and engaging anymore than the many splendid diversions of the internet are necessarily vapid. Should this choice be something I wrestle with?
And here is where we get back to the core of Fahrenheit 451. Books are a communication of ideas and emotions, as are paintings, songs, poems, comic books, television shows, sculptures, films, commercials, graffiti, plays, and the millions of things that live on the Internet. Some of these communications are complex, challenging, rich, intense, and dynamic. Some grab hold of us and make us question ourselves and our beliefs. Some have a beautiful simplicity that pierces the core of something transcendent. Some crystalize something previously ineffable.
Some are garbage.
I won’t make a stand here to measure the quality of one communication against another, nor will I presume to tell you which forms are more likely to be of great quality. After all, it isn’t that simple. I will say though, that I think we sense its absence as easily as we do its presence. And we decide.
Fahrenheit 451 is about this choice and the very human impulses that underlie it. It is very human to seek out pleasure, so much the better if that pleasure can come with minimal effort. Still, we can derive great pleasure from the struggle of ideas, encountering opinions unlike our own, or wrestling with provocative paradoxes. So do we choose something that engages our thought, or not? Do we delve deep over a long period of time, or get the quick fix? Do we make an effort to encounter difference or do we seal ourselves up with like-minded voices. How regularly do we go this way or that? What balance do we strike?
What are the consequences of eating nothing but sugar?
The people of Bradbury’s dystopia do not engage. They choose not to struggle with ambiguity, preferring unchangeable facts. They numb difficult emotions. They surround themselves in simple pleasure. Everything is tepid… more or less nice. In short, they have fireproofed their minds. Nothing catches fire. Nothing sticks. Nothing changes.
One last thing. In 2007 the NEA released a report, To Read or Not to Read, which found, among many other things, that 41-48 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 44 do not read any books that are not required for work or school. None. This represents a sharp decline since just the 1990s. Read the rest of the report, and you’ll see that the quality of that reading is questionable. The report also has plenty to show us about the consequences of this trend too, not the least of which is a diminished capacity for critical thought.
Use it or lose it.
Reading is a great gift. It is a gift not everyone is fortunate enough to enjoy. Like any gift we get, once given, it is up to us whether and how to use it. Should we forsake all other gifts for this one? No. But there are consequences to leaving it on a shelf. We shouldn’t pretend that there aren’t.