The Atavist’s Futurist

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Ray Bradbury is the atavist’s futurist, Daniel J. Flynn says:

The obvious reading of Fahrenheit 451 reveals a story about censorship. This view lends itself to competing left-right interpretations, making Fahrenheit 451 the unique politically charged book that transcends the controversies of its day and finds welcome in conflicting political camps. Is it about McCarthyism or political correctness? The flexibility of political readings helps explain the 5 million copies in print. But the more subtle and important theme involves passive entertainment displacing the life of the mind. It is less about right-left than about smart-stupid.

Before Fahrenheit 451’s firemen came to burn books, the public deserted books. “I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths,” the story’s Professor Faber remarks. “No one wanted them back. No one missed them.” In attempting to please the masses, publishers took care not to offend the market and produced books “leveled down to a sort of pastepudding norm.” Attention spans waned in the wake of competing technology. “Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth-century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.”

In the novel, people stopped reading before the state stopped them from reading. The predictable result was an ill-educated society fit for neither leisure nor the ballot. Women discuss voting for a candidate because of his handsome looks and abdicate the responsibilities of motherhood by dumping their children in front of television sets. The over-medicated, air-conditioned culture is awash in suicide, abortion, child neglect, and glassy-eyed passivity. Sound familiar?

Bradbury wrote from Los Angeles, the capital of mindless distraction. But he did so inside a citadel of the book: the library. Plugging away at coin-operated typewriters in the basement of UCLA’s library, the cash-strapped father finished the initial draft of Fahrenheit 451 in nine days for $9.80. One version was serialized in early numbers of Playboy, an ironic venue for both its constant attention from would-be firemen and its place among magazines as a favorite of readers with something other than literature on their minds. But that was Ray Bradbury, bashing the vacuity of television on “The Ray Bradbury Theater” cable show, highlighting the sins of science through science fiction, lambasting shrinking attention spans through the shortest of short stories.

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