22 June, 2012

Fahrenheit 451

Yes, yes I'm late. As usual.

Two weeks ago, we lost one of the titans of science fiction, Ray Bradbury. As one of the four "greats" of science fiction (along with Asimov, Clark, and Heinlein), Bradbury brought science fiction writing out of the discount bin, regulated to weirdos and futurists, and allowed the genre to mature into a defined literary field.

Moreover, Bradbury's work in his later years proved him to be the best kind of old man-- a crotchety, opinionated, I-don't-care-anymore loudmouth. I can only aspire to such a thing come mid-century. In particular, Bradbury had a fierce commitment to public libraries as institutions existing to the betterment of all mankind, even dismissing formal education in place of the honored biblioteque,

"Libraries raised me. I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don't have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years."

Wow, isn't that the way it should be? I heard his echoes every time our town debated building a new library. 
As much time as his mind spent in the future, Bradbury was suspicious of the Internet, at one point responding to a request to digitize his books by saying, "To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the internet.", citing that "it isn't real." Indeed, the flow of knowledge was a topic close to his heart, leading to last week's re-read of the classic Fahrenheit 451.

Intended as a story not about burning books, but what happens to a society which no longer cares about deep thinking, this was Bradbury's launch from magazine serials to literary analysis. The plot itself is straightforward enough (most likely recalled from our high school days, whether this was assigned reading or not); Guy Montag is a "fireman," in that his purpose in this vaguely-defined 21st century dystopia is to burn the remaining books in the city.

Guy's world begins to bifurcate upon meeting Clarisse McClellan, a free-spirited seventeen year-old, whose family is highly suspect in clinging to the "old ways" such as talking, going on leisurely walks and drives, generally avoiding television, and asking "why" a bit too often to make people comfortable. In a society wherein the populace is entirely disconnected from one another, and to a large degree, themselves, Clarisse exposes Guy's suppressed, questioning spirit with which the fireman begins to wonder at the books, ideas, and -- by extension-- people which he has sought to destroy.

While the writing, particularly in part three of the book, leans more toward "adventure story," the message is where the story shines. In an adult's reading, I found interesting, the state of Millie, Guy's lassitude wife. Utterly dependent on the structure of the society, she is a waif of a soul, entirely unable to think more deeply on any topic beyond a nervous laugh, or derisive dismissal. Although written in 1951, the disengagement of the general public, more focused on soundbites and factoids than analysis and connections, one can see why Bradbury developed an irritation with 2009's state of the Internet.

And that's probably why Fahrenheit 451 leapt from the dregs of "genre" to become assigned reading in secondary and post-secondary analysis; its application. As a reader in 2012, one likely sees as many warning signs in the world around them as a reader in 1962 or 2075. Moreover, Bradbury's storytelling is an artful experience, stretching to ideals to which all of us reach-- the pursuit of beauty and truth.