As is no doubt true for many of us, I have been thinking for some time about the current ongoing malleability of the perception of truth from various corners. Of course, the current administration has accelerated and perpetrated in gross mischaracterizations of fact, and routinely engages in outright lies. But I’m really thinking about other, deeper trends in relationships that have been going on for quite some time. We have voluntarily accepted outlets and technologies that humans have not encountered before - and while they often connect people and commerce in positive and beneficial ways, they can also have the unintended consequence of virtual friends and economic interactions taking the place of deeper and more personal ones. And these deeper and personal connections help us figure out agreements by which we can stipulate a generally accepted baseline set of facts as “truth”. In the Information Age, sometimes it is hard to tell what is real and what is not. Who among us has not looked up from their device and thought “I’m the only one looking up right now.”
It was in this context that I was at the bookstore with my kids (G-d bless them they do love real, physical books as much as online screens) and decided to pick up a few books for myself. I have been reading quite a few books on the Kindle app for iPad - it’s great for travel - but recently I’ve read a number of physical books and have got the bug back for them. The 60th edition of Fahrenheit 451 was just sitting there waiting for me to pick it up. And so I did, I had not read it for decades. My 13 year old son looked at me with an unexpected bit of reverence and said “That’s a classic book, right?” (For the record, the other two books were by Dan Brown and Terry Pratchett, respectively.)
Fahrenheit 451 is far more relevant to today’s world than I imagined or remembered it would be. Neil Gaiman wrote a very cool introduction, but even that didn’t really prepare me for the stone cold reckoning that Ray Bradbury puts in front of us. The book was published in 1953, when radio was on the wane and television was the brand new thing. It is the story of Guy Montag, a fireman - but not the kind of fireman that we know of today that puts out fires; this kind of fireman is called in to burn down houses and buildings that contain books. (Today’s type of fireman is not needed anymore as houses have otherwise been systemically fireproofed.) Bradbury takes us through Montag’s awakening, precipitated by a meeting with a young neighbor, who is an oddity in a city of essentially sleepwalking people, kept “happy” without the thought provoking turmoil that books often initiate. (Bradbury, by the way, predicts in 1953 a form of VR/AR that is not far off from reality right now.)
The journey we travel on with Montag isn’t just about an awakening of why books are precious; Bradbury’s prescience on how people today are plugged into virtual worlds with virtual relationships at the expense of physical connectedness and critical thinking is nothing short of stunning. It is not that books matter in and of themselves - it is what is in them that does. There’s a bit of a mind bending part where Montag’s very literate fire captain quotes poetry while trying to make the argument that it is the source of unhappiness in humanity, thus the need for the firemen. The systemic burning of books is the burning of something much deeper than just paper and ink. Montag does ultimately break free from the mental vise and crosses the point of no return to awakening, at great peril to himself. Ultimately Montag’s freedom winds up saving his life, and he becomes a repository of knowledge for when humanity may come calling again to require it.
Bradbury’s vision is darker than where we find ourselves today, and there are certainly significant differences (e.g., I doubt anyone would say social media keeps an artificial lid on turmoil and unhappiness) but as Neil Gaiman says in his introduction, the writer’s job isn’t necessarily to predict the future; rather it is to take certain themes from his/her contemporanous time and expand it to what types of things might happen. Even so, Bradbury puts a slice of hope in the resilience of humanity at the end. The book is a remarkably gripping and quick read. Sometimes you gotta go back and crack open a classic book - they’re classic for a reason. I am looking forward to handing my copy of it to my son.