So Ray Bradbury’s dark vision of an illiterate society, as described in Fahrenheit 451, has not to pass in the USA. Books were never banned, at least not here. I know there are many other countries where books are heavily censored. In fact, just recently, the Chinese Communist government was accused of kidnapping several Hong Kong booksellers.
But here in America, we have plenty of reading choices. You can buy books about just about everything. There are books about politics, books about religion. You can find books about overthrowing governments and books about sex. You can buy porn, horror and experimental books about nothing at all. Very little is off the table.
In that sense, you could argue that the novel could be dismissed as being anachronistic. Is this day and age of computer viruses, data hacking, cameras in every phone, GPS tracking, and terrorist organizations who use Youtube, who really thinks of books as any sort of threat? Books have been replaced, outsourced, and outstripped by the new media. And yet… somehow, Fahrenheit 451 still feels relevant. And here’s why: if you take away the most sensational aspect of the novel- that of banned books and book-burning- F 451 does a great job of holding a mirror to a consumer culture that is driven by distraction.
Two of the most telling moments of the novel are small moments. In one of them Guy Montag tells his wife, Mildred, that he feels lost and empty, that he has a sense that something is wrong with life, but does not have the ability to articulate it. Mildred offers him some advice. The suggests that he should take the car and drive really fast in the countryside. She says she does it sometimes when he’s not around and the high speeds invigorate her. Even better, she sometimes hits dogs or rabbits, and that’s thrilling too. This disturbing call to violence and speed is how Mildred distracts herself.
In another sequence, Montag, on the cusp of dropping out of society, is trying to memorize a bit of the Bible on the subway. As he reads the same line over and over again (It’s: Consider the Lilies of the Field), a commercial keeps playing on the subway’s speaker system, advertising Denham’s Dentifrice (Dentifrice is an old fashioned word for toothpaste). This passage soon becomes a battle with Montag speaking louder and louder, trying, in his own verbal way, to defend himself from the wash of advertising.
Even though F451 was published in the early 50’s, a time when our culture was far less tolerant of violence and sensation in the Media, he somehow managed to predict our own age of infinite distraction. Our media landscape is disproportionately dominated by references to sex scandals, interpersonal violence, fear-mongering, and a constant flow of plaintive social-media. Thus the nightly news will devote 30 seconds to a topless bike ride in Seattle, 30 seconds to a video showing a teacher spanking a child in Texas, 30 seconds to a social media faux pas committed by a TV star, and 30 seconds to a the loss of 2,000 jobs in, say, Ohio. Only one of those is likely to affect the lives of tens of thousands of people, but the newshour gives them each equal weight in terms of coverage.
The constant display of the embarrassing, the sexually charged, the violent, the revolting, the terrifying becomes a festival of distraction. You don’t have to drive around in a car and run over rabbits. You can just watch video of someone else doing it and then- like looking into the infinite recession of two mirrors facing each other- you can view the social media’s reaction to it, and the social media’s reaction to that reaction and so on…
And if you are a reader like me, you already have empathy for poor Guy’s attempts to memorize part of a book in a public space, because thanks to the ubiquity of TV screens, cell phones, and tablets, it had become harder and harder to find quiet spaces. Every other time I’m on the bus, I am “treated” to someone else’s music, usually streamed from their cell phone. Libraries have more computers, bringing in more folks who will congregate, camp-out and chat. Many restaurants now feature TV’s in corners, above the bar, and even (sometimes) in booths. And if they don’t have TV’s, people will bring in their tablets, and you have a chance of sitting next to some kid who is happily play a noisy video game.
But, in some ways, this is just the skin of the issue. In my case, I feel like F451 issues a personal challenge of sorts. The book asks of us: Can one live a life without distraction, or at least with, less distraction, and here we need to once again return to Bradbury’s saddest character, Mildred. As we discover in the beginning of the book, Mildred is horribly, frighteningly unhappy, but she lacks even the tools to understand that she is unhappy. To her, life must be a series of distractions, provided by high speed driving, sleeping pills, a TV room (where all four walls have screens), and sensational TV shows (Like a show that consists mostly of clowns chopping each other apart with axes). And so Mildred is deeply disturbed and sad, and she doesn’t quite understand it. She might be able to dig herself out of her hole, but she assumes that her hole is the entire universe.
In some way, Mildred’s problem becomes the most vital part of the book. It reminds us that our own challenges are personal. How much do we dwell in our own holes, and how much do we distract ourselves from this? Do Facebook feeds keep us from having to regard important personal issues? Does the infinite ability to conjure up content on our cell phones keep us from better, more valuable work? Does giving our children access to video games take away time that might be spent on working, failing, succeeding, and creating real things?
The answers to these questions, of course, are complicated, but worth considering. Like the case of poor Mildred, does the roar of the Media, and the culture of noise, and the culture of shopping offer so much distraction that one need never grapple with one’s true nature? Does the attraction of a Hi-Def screen keep us from sitting outside and listening to the birds at sunset? Do we see less of our own home and neighborhood? Do we better know our own town, or do we better know the virtual world? We can debate all these things, and indeed there are ongoing debates and discussions, but it would be a bad idea to ignore the question of distraction that Bradbury posited over 60 years ago.