On Tuesday, the world-renowned science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, died at the age of 91. I learned of Bradbury’s death through Facebook statuses and Twitter posts. Like many, I knew Bradbury because I was required to read his most well-known novel, “Fahrenheit 451” (named for the temperature at which paper ignites) in high school. My 10th grade English class read it in the spring of 2007, just a few months before I would use Facebook for the first time.
Life was simpler then, and instead of spending time on Facebook, I spent time reading books. Instead of status updates or Wikipedia entries, I would read hundreds of pages.
Now, five years later Facebook has become a more integral part of our lives than I could ever have imagined. In those five years, parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents have all gone from being hesitant about putting their information on the internet, to becoming the most enthusiastic and active web users I know; headlines are far less read than tweets.
Ray Bradbury, as far as I know, did not have a Facebook or Twitter account. Maybe he was too old for it; maybe he considered his remaining time on the Earth too precious for liking, poking and Farmville invites. Or maybe, he just wanted to spend more time with his beloved books.
Born in 1920, Bradbury had seen many mediums — newspapers, vinyl records, 8-tracks, cassettes and DVDs — rise to the top like a hot new band, enjoying popularity and then receding until cooler, better groups come along. Newspapers have given way to online news (which studies have shown are more skimmed over than print articles) and Vinyl enjoys a small resurgence only out of nostalgia and hipster-fetishes. Popularity is fleeting.
Printed books are less popular than ever, and people seem to prefer television adaptations and movies. Most of my friends choose to watch “Game of Thrones” over reading “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Optimists like to think that even if printed books go, there are e-readers and tablets that literature can thrive in, but more cynical readers feel something is lost in this transition. Tablets are not a pure book-reading experience. Can anyone get the same experience reading a book on an iPad where distractions thrive?
Our generation of television watchers and internet surfers may be just as dangerous to printed books as the firefighters who burn books in “Fahrenheit 451” are.
Critics, teachers, readers all like to believe the novel is a warning against the censorship of books but Bradbury spent the last few years of his life trying to convince everyone “Fahrenheit 451” wasn’t about censorship. Rather, he was adamant the novel was a cautionary tale against the potential evil of television, or “quicker” ways of getting information. Bradbury worried about a society where people gave up books because they had easier, faster forms of entertainment and knowledge.
An LA Weekly article by Amy E. Boyle Johnston from 2007, the year Bradbury received a Pulitzer award, elaborated on Bradbury’s fears and highlighted Bradbury’s insistence the book wasn’t about censorship.
“Unlike Orwell’s 1984, in which the government uses television screens to indoctrinate citizens, Bradbury envisioned television as an opiate,” Johnston says.
Johnston’s article notes that Bradbury feared that formats like television took people away from enjoying literature.
“Useless … they stuff you with so much useless information, you feel full,” Bradbury said of television.
Johnston includes an excerpt from a letter Bradbury sent to another writer, Richard Matheson, in 1951 about how he feared radio would take away from literature.
“Radio has contributed to our growing lack of attention … This sort of hopscotching existence makes it almost impossible for people, myself included, to sit down and get into a novel again. We have become a short story reading people, or, worse than that, a QUICK reading people,” Bradbury wrote.
Bradbury’s fears about radio and television could just as easily extend to the internet and technology. People like to utter the phrase “this is so 1984” when they feel the society they live in is becoming like the one George Orwell depicted in “1984,” but when I read about the end of Ray Bradbury’s life in a mere two-sentence status update on Facebook, I couldn’t help but think “this is so Farenheit 451.”
And there is my favorite passage from the book — where the main character and another firefighter discuss why they don’t need books:
“… Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of `facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely `brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely … I just like solid entertainment.”
So much of Bradbury’s book seems to be coming true. We aren’t burning books yet, but it doesn’t seem like it will take long for them to seem more useful as kindling for the camp fire than something to crack open.
Bradbury will be remembered because he left us with so many burning questions: “Who will need books when we have kindles and iPads? Who will need literature when we have movies, video games and the internet? Who will need truth when we have entertainment?”