The most important conversations I have with other political dissidents usually revolve around the theme that people don’t read anymore, which by extension also means that they don’t think either. Over and over again, we bear witness to the utter devastation that results from when it becomes a cultural norm to act impulsively without consideration for the consequences. When rationality falls out of fashion, civilization becomes something not worth improving upon.
What if book burning became a professional occupation? Set in an alternate America, that is exactly what firemen do – they cause fires instead of preventing them. Given that possession of books has been declared mala prohibita by the State, it is the primary duty of all firemen to burn any and all books they come across, especially those being held by individuals who have “illegally” stockpiled them.
What if one of those firemen decided to grow a pair and heed his conscience? Enter Guy Montag, who begins questioning the very societal structure he happens to inhabit. Shaken out of his stupor by a chance friendship with a free-spirited young woman, coupled with his wife’s suicidal yet shallow behavior, Montag decides to reexamine his entire life and try to determine where everything went wrong. His first major actions in the pursuit of the truth is when he starts saving books from the houses of those he burns.
After a particularly chilling call his fire company received where a little old lady chose to self-immolate when they were in the process of burning her book-filled house, Montag is so deeply affected that he decides to call in sick. When he doesn’t show up for work, his boss, Captain Beatty, shows up at his home to check up on him. Realizing that Montag is not in ill health but is rather experiencing physical retching as the manifestation of his guilt about the old woman, Beatty explains to Montag how with the advent of mass media, there was no more conflict amongst the populace because everyone was distracted:
“Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off the unnecessary, time-wasting thought!”
What is revealed here is the insidious effect of fracturing information to the degree that there is no meaning to it anymore. This, combined with the information overload of such compartamentalized and disparate types of data, is really nothing more than the purposeful destruction of individual thought. Just as Newspeak directly abused the language through grammar, the over condensation of information seeks to impose what we would understand to be “political correctness,” that is, an inherently manipulative form of “reality control,” whereby every ideological talking point is pushed so broadly and rockets by you so quickly at such unbelievable speeds, that you cannot even comprehend what is actually happening.
What is the goal behind such rampant compartamentalization? Beatty explicates:
“We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won’t stomach them for a minute.”
So, according to him, the prime reason for the blatant suppression of literature is that it would empower those best able to comprehend it, which would eventually lead them to becoming “unequal” to everyone else, and we just can’t have that now, can we? All sarcasm aside, what Beatty reveals here is what drives him to burn books is the fact that he is a psychopathic authoritarian collectivist who seeks to coercively impose his own personal inadequacies upon everyone else through the machinery of government. Needless to say, Montag resolves to never burn professionally ever again.
By reestablishing contact with an English professor he had encountered years ago, Montag asks for guidance, from this man named Faber, to help him understand what he does manage to read. Faber begins by explaining that it’s not books per se that Montag is ultimately looking for:
“It’s not the books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books….[t]he same infinite detail and awareness [that] could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not….[t]he magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”
He goes onto to describe the three conditions that are necessary if such “magic” is to be utilized:
“This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.”
The second condition requires leisure, to which Montag admits that there is plentiful amounts of, to which Faber responds:
“Off hours, yes. But time to think? If you’re not driving a hundred miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the four-wall televisor….with all my knowledge and skepticism, I have never been able to argue with a one-hundred-piece symphony orchestra, full of color, three dimensions, and being and part of those incredible parlors. As you see, my parlor is nothing but four plaster walls.”
When asked about the third condition, Faber answers:
“Number one, as I said, quality of information. Number two: leisure to digest it. And number three: the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.”
This is incredibly profound, for it suggests that it is incumbent on those who read books to act upon what it is they have read.
After Montag reads a little bit of poetry to some of his wife’s friends, Beatty orders Montag’s house burnt. Before he has a chance to do this, Montag burns Beatty alive, thus necessitating his escape from the city. Faber assists him by telling him to cross the river (thus obscuring his smell from the Mechanical Hounds) and join up with one of the roaming bands of vagabonds who make it their life’s work to memorize the content of books so that when the remnants of civilization are ready to relearn its own history, the ability to supply that suppressed knowledge can be manifested. Montag’s story ends when a sudden war is declared and the city is completely obliterated in a single air strike; amongst the wreckage, the roaming vagabonds (with Montag in tow) begin to travel to the next town, preserving humanity’s lost knowledge within their minds.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a spellbinding fictional account of what happens when genuine intellectual rigor is scrapped in favor of senseless titillation. As Gary Hunt put it so aptly, “It appears, then, that we can likely agree that Speech, that protection afforded in the First Amendment, must surely be intended to also protect the Freedom of Thought. Otherwise, it would be best described as ‘Freedom of Gibberish’.” I would add that if the so-called “Freedom of Gibberish” enjoyed government protection and was exercised by statist morons, then the result would be the corporate whore mainstream media and its corollary, the Carnival of Distractions. So, I guess you could say that the cold apathy, rampant consumerism, and sensationalistic garbage that is peddled for “news” that we experience on a daily basis is Bradbury’s nightmare come true (at least partially), since people would rather suffer the effects of “Because YouTube Said So…” than pick up a book and read.