Why I Hate Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury is one of the few writers published consistently in the science fiction category who is also read widely by non-sf readers. He was awarded a special National Book Award for "contributions to American letters", his books are regularly assigned in schools, and he inspires that special level of fanatical devotion that leads people to name blogs after him and create absurdly elaborate music videos about wanting to have sex with him.
Which is part of why it's so frustrating to me that I don't like him. Of all the sf authors who have made some significant impact on the mainstream (whose numbers include Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and China Mieville, among others), Bradbury is probably the one that troubles me the most. (Okay, Heinlein is deeply problematic, but that's another essay entirely.)
Bradbury's most famous and bestselling book is Fahrenheit 451. Like millions of Americans, I was assigned to read this book in Middle School, though I didn't until recently as part of my Reading the History of Popular Literature project. Most of what's always bothered me about Bradbury is summed up by this passage on page 7 of my edition:
He saw himself in her eyes, suspended in two shining drops of bright water, himself dark and tiny, in fine detail, the lines about his mouth, everything there, as if her eyes were two miraculous bits of violet amber that might capture and hold him intact. Her face, turned to him now, was fragile milk crystal with a soft and constant light in it. It was not the hysterical light of electricity but—what? But the strangely comfortable and rare and gently flattering light of the candle. One time, as a child, in a power failure, his mother had found and lit a last candle and there had been a brief hour of rediscovery, of such illumination that space lost its vast dimensions and drew comfortably around them, and they, mother and son, alone, transformed, hoping that the power might not come on again too soon…
Here we have a parade of adjectives, and buckets and buckets of sentiment, nostalgia, and more than anything we have a fetishization of the past, this pervading sense that things were better back before we had all this crazy technology. A reactionary looking-backward that is directly at odds with a genre whose whole purpose was originally to look forward.
But I wish a bit of Ludditism and purple prose was his only crime. Consider this passage:
Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally 'bright,' did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy for there are no mountain to make them cower, to judge themselves against. ... Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won't stomach them for a minute. … [what we need is] More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun and you don't have to think, eh? Organize and organize and super organize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less.
This is a kind of nerd fear-mongering. And the problem, the problem with this they're-trying-to-beat-us-smart-people-down worldview, is that it reinforces an us-versus-them mentality, the idea that there are evil jock-types who want to oppress us nice nerd-types. Sports are bad. Books are good. As if reality wasn't a thousand times more complicated. There's a sense in which Farenheit 451 can be read not just as snobbery (which it is), but as outright hate speech against the unbookish.
And as we read on, we discover the fundamentally right-wing nature of this particular breed of reactionary snobbishness.
If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it.
So big government is the problem, huh Ray? And it gets worse.
You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can't have our minorities upset and stirred. … Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.
Ah, so minorities are the problem. Can you tell us more about that, Ray? (From his afterward:)
About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles. But, she added, wouldn't it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women's characters and roles? A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn't I "do them over"? Along about then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks and the entire story should be dropped. … The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarion, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women's Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FouirSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blancmange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.
While I certainly don't advocate rewriting books to fit modern sensibilities, what Bradbury is doing here is a feint, a form of rhetorical hand waving. By equating all "minorities" with each other he privileges none, and so the black person complaining about Little Sambo is the same as the white person complaining about sympathetic black characters. But these two things are not the same. One is an actual minority complaining about a tool of oppression, and the other is a member of the majority complaining about an uppity minority. If people are coming to Bradbury and telling him that there aren't enough women characters or that black people aren't portrayed honestly, rather than waving that off, perhaps that should be a trigger for him to deeply evaluate himself and the prejudices he brings to his own work.
Which is the point. It's not actually minorities that are the problem at all. It's the majority, and its will to oppress those who are different, which is so much more than just the stupid trying to oppress the smart. When a publisher puts a white person on the cover of a YA novel about a black person, or when an agent tells an author they'll represent the book as long as a gay character is dropped, that's a form of oppression, an oppression that is contemporary and very real. And that is not at all the same thing as racist white people who complain about "political correctness" forcing entertainment to have more non-white and gay characters. By equating the two positions, Bradbury ironically dodges having to actually take a position on these issues; he's the one who's refusing to speak above a nursery rhyme.
In Bradbury's world the prevalence of TV and the absence of books creates people who are stupid, manipulable and violent. So, by his logic, before there was television people must have been smarter and more peaceful. Granted we are now looking back from the hindsight of over 50 years since the book was written, but it'd be pretty hard to convince me that people are more stupid, manipulable and violent now than they were, say, a hundred years ago, when black people were regularly lynched by the Klan and indeed we had a president who was practically a Klansman, a man who got us into one of the most deadly wars in history, a war we had no business being in, by canny use of propaganda. When unregulated banking (an absence of big government) led to the greatest economic collapse in history. No, things were not better back then. Not by a longshot. From a contemporary standpoint it's not even hard to make the argument that television, video games and so on have actually made us smarter and we know that violence has declined dramatically.
But if you want more evidence that Bradbury's book is founded on horseshit, here's a character explaining why books are so important:
Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has poors. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You'd find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more 'literary' you are. That's my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.
If telling detail were all it took to make literature, then the greatest of literature would be a litany of telling details devoid of plot, character arc or substance. Why would a character need to change as long as you have some telling, fresh details about his or her life? This is an incredibly shallow view of literature, especially coming from a character who is supposed to be a former professor of the subject.
This book makes me upset specifically because I love books so much. But Fahrenheit 451 makes us bibliophiles look like a bunch of reactionary assholes with our heads in the sand hoping (as happens in the book) that a nuclear holocaust will kill all those nasty jocks off so we can read in peace. And that's not just wrong, it's poisonous and hateful and I want nothing to do with it.