Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Author's Quiet Birthday

Ray Bradbury turned 89 last week. His iconic work, Fahrenheit 451 - first published in it's entirety in 1953, turned 56 this year.

"So what?" you're probably thinking, and you wouldn't be wrong in thinking that this post seems somewhat random. Unless, of course, you knew that I just finished reading this book, for the first time actually. It was never part of the required reading as I was moving through school (and, even if it had been, there is a good probability that I would have only skimmed). I am surprised that I had not read the book, but glad that I waited until now because I do not think that I would have understood it or seen its poignancy had I read it previously. How did Bradbury do it? How did he foresee an era where electronic media would foreshadow the written word in ink (yes, I understand the irony of writing this electronically)? How did he foresee a time when snippets of information, for example knowing Napoleon's Birthday, would become more valuable than actually knowing who Napoleon was?

For those who haven't read the book it follows Guy Montag, a fireman in a futuristic society. However, he is not the kind of fireman that we think of today. Instead Guy, and all of the others in his profession, move around the city starting fires. Specifically, they burn books.

The reason for this is explained by the Fire-Chief on pages 58-60 of the book:
"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 then 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"..."Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet into the incinerator."

At its core the book is about censorship, and the author's absolute love of books. A secondary theme is the encroachment of technology, and it's overshadowing of literature and the written word. Finally, the book also discusses the concept of the police state and the inability of it's people to think for themselves. Ironically, the book was itself censored in the mid-1960s. The publishing company removed all of the "damns" and "hells" in order to make the book more appropriate for the classroom. Another ironic outcome of the book comes from more recently. Various people have been trying to bring Fahrenheit 451 back to the screen for 15 years. The process began in 1994 when Mel Gibson signed on to play the role of Guy Montag. Eventually, after a few scripts were worked up and turned down, Gibson moved into the role of producer. Eventually, Tom Hanks signed on to play Montag, but he has also moved on. The irony is outlined in a 2001 article from Variety magazine which says: "Gibson said he couldn't find a "451" script that worked. Adding to his reluctance: the realization that, in the age of computers, the crucial plot element -- burning books in a futuristic society to permanently erase their existence -- might no longer play." Source. How ironic - a book about book burning...about technology overtaking page and ink...a book warning of the perils of conformity and a lack of free-thinking individuals has been deemed obsolete because of the technology that seems to have overtaken our lives.

Ray Bradbury turned 89 last week...did anyone notice?

Oh, since I'm sure you're wondering, Napoleon's Birthday is August 15, 1769.

This post is rated SPF 451, I hope for obvious reasons.

1 comment:

Scottie said...

Another of Bradbury's classic novels that I read in High School was his semi-autobiographical book "Dandelion Wine" for which Bradbury also has a crater on the moon named for him, Dandelion Crater, based on this novel.

Above and beyond the brilliant metaphors for our society laced throughout Bradbury's novels lies one of the greatest imagery authors you can pick up at your book store. If you haven't had the opportunity to read much Bradbury, pick up a copy of Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine or my personal Bradbury favorite The Martian Chronicles, for those of you with a taste for sci-fi/fantasy novels.