Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 | Misinformation and the Media

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 takes part in an odd paradox. It's a book about the danger of banning books that get banned a lot--a whole lot. Yeah, Fahrenheit 451 has been on library blacklists since it was first published in 1953. You'd think the banning would have stopped somewhere in the 21st century, but it hasn't. Librarians are coached about which books to ban from day one of their library studies. Librarians-in-training receive a time-honored blacklist of every classic book that should never find its way into the hands of a pliable mind. Along with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Mark Twain's Huck Finn, and James Joyce's Ulysses, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is one of the great whipping boys of the puritanical mission to cleanse society of corrupting influences. Yes, sadly, Western society has a long tradition for casting out its best thinkers: think of Galileo and Socrates, or, better, think like Galileo and Socrates and watch as the rank and file hurry to build a pillory to contain you.

But let's explore what made people so afraid of Bradbury's ideas. 

The Television Age

television with white noise gif

Bradbury wrote during the age of the television. In the early 1950s, television supplanted radio, and American people began tuning into shows developed for the new live-motion medium. Bradbury was afraid new media would keep citizens from reading and thinking. The state of television in its earliest days would have added to Bradbury's fears. Nothing was recorded. Television was merely broadcast. Television was the ephemera of the day, talking heads dodging between telling the news, telling jokes, and reading advertisement copy. In other words, the earliest form of TV was somewhat mind-numbing--just as contemporary television programming is somewhat mind-numbing.

Now, reading books or simply not watching television doesn't necessarily engender thinking. Plenty of people sit around doing nothing and thinking even less--watching the paint dry, some call it. Many readers report that they lose focus while "reading" and daydream instead of processing the information on the page. And we could find bookstores, archives, and libraries packed with worthless books quite easily, including Amazon's so-called long tail filled with archives of poorly written works by hucksters with nothing to say and all the space of cyberspace to say it. 

But many books are a channel into unparalleled thinking, a channel into the great accomplishments of mankind over our written history, from Gilgamesh to the works of George Orwell. The right kind of television or video program can serve in the capacity that Ray Bradbury associated with books, but television largely did not serve in that capacity in his era. The television was a box full of talking heads, gluts of zero information and misinformation blocking the transmission of informative information.  

The Media Feed

If you take a few moments to study the media stream, you'll note that the television media of our own day isn't all that concerned with education either, at least not liberal education. Today's media feed, taken as an educational system, would turn out individuals aware of a Frankensteinian mishmash of popular culture, political disinformation & propaganda, regional anxieties, empty trends, ephemeral fashions, and celebrities famous for being famous. When neither the reporters or the politicians are honest, getting accurate information is nigh impossible. After all the redactions and reductions, we're often left knowing only that we have been and will continue to be badly misinformed.

To a Shut Mind, all Books Might as Well Already be Burned

Nazi Bookburning

When societal book burnings are the norm, the act is no more than a symptom of a much greater problem. Nazi book burnings, for instance, didn't stop anyone from reading books. The books already weren't being read. The book burning was just an outward celebration of a shift that had already occurred.

Ray Bradbury was aware that in certain societies, burning books is entirely superfluous. Shut minds are a fire enough for burning books. Shut minds would never bother to read or to think, content to grab at the low-hanging fruit. Today the low-hanging fruit is a mostly vacuous internet and a cable television feed pumped to the gills with the entertainment spectacle. Spectacle--remember--is Guy Debord's concept of a loss of authenticity, tracing a move from existence as being to having, then having to appearing to have. Tomorrow the low-hanging fruit is a virtual reality world pumping pleasure to the senses, a world predicated on appearance but filled with individuals lacking authentic identity.

But the 21st century should mark neither the end of identity nor the end of education. Education doesn't have to end. The motivated mind now has an easier time than ever diving into the river of human knowledge and learning. Find your own Professor Faber. Have them recommend a book or a hundred books, and find the Promethean fire.

Escape from New York

For more on Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, check out my book The Archive Incarnate

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