Reading Fahrenheit 451 in the Age of Trump and Netflix


I recently re-read Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 for the first time since junior high. This book is now frequently described as a “period piece,” as a work with some enduring relevance, but a work irretrievably tethered to Cold War-era conceptions of power, government, and culture.

However, re-reading this novel in the age of Trump, Netflix, Amazon, and endless entertainment, it is exceedingly clear that we should still care very deeply about it for several reasons.

First, this book predicts some cultural trends, trends which, the way Bradbury describes them in his imagined future, may seem a bit campy or, indeed, a bit tethered to Cold War-era concerns, but are in fact, growing and advancing toward fruition, as he imagined, just in ways that are exponentially more sophisticated.

Take the entertainment system imagined in the book, for example. Citizens have “TV parlors,” in which the walls are converted fully to television screens. Viewers can participate in sweepstakes to have small speaking parts in different shows from within their TV parlor. Guy Montag, the main character, finds that his wife, Mildred, has sent away box tops for a small part as “the homemaker” in a show. She receives the script and reads along.

Entertainment, in the book, penetrates so deeply into daily life that people literally become one with it. The world of the television show subsumes the world of the glued viewer, who takes the additional step of participating in the program.

We are obviously not at the point of TV parlors, but we are at a point when you can, theoretically, be entertained twenty-four hours each day if you so desire. Bradbury was imagining a world in which TV was so big and ubiquitous and easy to follow that you could surround yourself with it, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. But even in the book, this occurs only in the home, in the parlor. We, on the other hand, are able to take our screens with us, outside of the home. Everywhere. Thus, arguably, the ubiquity of the screen in Bradbury’s world is actually, in comparison, rather limited when juxtaposed to modern American life and its technological possibilities.

Moreover, the dizzying, infinite variety of viewing options on our panoply of screens is simply unprecedented.

For the record, I am not the television police. Not by any stretch. But I do think these trends are worth thinking about.

Also striking and relevant (and a bit alarming) is how the the world in Fahrenheit 451 came to be.

For those who have not read the book, it’s about a fireman named Guy Montag. However, firemen in this society do not put out fires. They are tasked, instead, with starting fires, specifically with burning all books, the possession of which has been made illegal. These firemen answer calls and work 24-hour shifts at the fire station like the firemen in our world. But their job is more cultural and intellectual maintenance than saving lives.

Guy Montag, the book’s protagonist, begins to question the origins and the purpose of his profession. He begins to have independent thoughts, which beget further independent thoughts, which compel him to find answers.

I don’t want to give too much away because I think it’s a book we should all read. But what I do want to talk about is how the society portrayed in the novel came to be, because I think it has present-day reverberations. How did Guy Montag’s society get to a point where books are deemed contraband, where independent thought is actively precluded, and where citizens are content (happy, even) to spend every second of free time in their “TV parlors?”

In his quest for answers, Guy secretly consults a former professor, who explains that three culturally essential things disappeared, were systematically extinguished, or voluntarily surrendered:

1. Quality of information

2. Leisure to digest it

3. The right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two

First, the professor argues, the criminalization and destruction of books has essentially eliminated quality information. The contents of books, he continues, contain our most valuable cultural information:

“The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

Books contain quality information:

“Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. 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 detailFresh detail…So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.”

Without books, without meaningful exploration into the complexities and nuance of real human existence, into “the pores in the face of life,” so to speak, our understanding of ourselves grows increasingly shallow, unconsidered, and devoid of meaning. So we cede ourselves to our entertainment.

Why would we do this? The most obvious explanation is simply comfort and ease. It’s not always pleasurable to look into “the pores” of life, to examine, to explore, to criticize and ask questions. And while perhaps most of you reading this consider this idea pretty basic Humanities 101, keep in mind that lots of people do not feel that way. Lots of people make the very rational decision, consciously or not, that they would rather not see the “pores in the face of life.” You can argue, like Socrates, that the unexamined life is not worth living, but it’s difficult to argue that the examined life is less painful.

The point is, we can see how quality information could gradually, theoretically, disappear. The scary thing in Fahrenheit 451 is that, as the professor says, “the public itself stopped reading of its own accord.” The state didn’t just decide one day to destroy all books. Rather, the people stopped reading, the state saw its opportunity, and the policy against books seemed, and probably felt, like a natural progression.

The second missing thing, according to the professor, is the leisure to digest quality information. Montag’s response to this assertion is “Oh, but we’ve plenty of off hours.” The professor quickly 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. Why? The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!’”

In other words, free time, leisure time, is spent with entertainment. Mere entertainment. Entertainment that requires very little thinking and no meaningful engagement.

Again, this is obviously not our world. We have some fantastically interesting entertainment. There are outstanding, thought-provoking television shows being made everyday. However, what I think is, indeed, relevant, is our level of engagement with our entertainment. Game of Thrones is thought-provoking, absolutely, but it still doesn’t demand or require thought for you to enjoy it. It doesn’t require that you do any intellectual work. You certainly can, and your viewing experience may be enhanced and enriched if you do, but you don’t have to.

The question to ask, maybe, is this: Do we have so much putatively thought-provoking entertainment because viewers really want to engage on deeper intellectual levels? Or does our putatively thought-provoking entertainment, by giving us the option to think, ingeniously assuage any guilt we may feel for watching thoughtlessly, endlessly?

The final missing thing, the professor says, is the right to act based on what we learn from quality information we have digested. In the novel, since books our outlawed, any action inspired by a book is also illegal.

So back to the original premise of this article. Why should we still care about Fahrenheit 451? Simple. Look at the three things the professor says are missing, which are enumerated above, and ask yourself where we currently are with those three things. Ask yourself what you think entertainment is going to look like when virtual reality takes off. It doesn’t take outrageous, fanciful leaps of imagination to envision a route to something, for all intents and purposes, like the TV parlors in the book.

Examining our current cultural situation, I think there’s an argument to be made that we’re holding on to number one (quality information), albeit tenuously. Quality information exists and is available. The issue is willingness to seek it out and willingness to spend time digesting it and thinking about it, which leads to number two. I would argue we’re voluntarily surrendering number two (leisure time to digest quality information). There is no longer any amount of free or down time that cannot be filled with entertainment. Number three (right to act on digested quality information), I would say, is still intact, but this is also a meaningless right if numbers one and two no longer exist.

So we should care about this book because, to use Neil Gaiman’s terms, it’s premised on the idea, “If this goes on…” It is the type of fiction that “takes an element of life today, something clear and obvious and normally something troubling, and asks what would happen if that thing, that one thing, became all-pervasive, changed the way we thought and behaved.”

Some Thoughts on Tom Petty, RIP

 

When I heard that Tom Petty died, my initial reaction was alarm. Frankly, I was worried about my father, who loved Petty’s music dearly, and for whom, generationally speaking, Petty was a peer. Now I obviously knew that my father was not going to be debilitated, or even heartbroken, by the news. But I also know there’s something uniquely poignant when an artist whose work has accompanied you consistently, whose career arc, temporally, has tracked your own arc of adult life, passes away. It’s a sobering reminder that the end of the road is closer than the beginning.

But then I started thinking about my own relationship with Petty’s music. Some of the first songs I remember hearing in my life are Tom Petty songs. My father would take me to basketball games, playing the Full Moon Fever album constantly. I remember one of the only times I was allowed to use the word “hell,” as a first-grader, was when singing the lyrics, “you can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.”

And for a while, the music primarily just conjured happy memories with my father and the rest of my family, memories of childhood car rides and paternal advice-giving.

Eventually, though, as a result of my own accumulated life experience, Tom Petty’s music became more than just my father’s music. It became my music, too. It’s hard to tell when or why this happened, but I think it began during an undergraduate break-up, when “Don’t Come Around Here No More” became epiphanic. It distilled every thought I had into one line. And I listened to it over and over and over again.

I began to listen to “Time to Move On” any time I made a dramatic change in my life. If I graduated college or graduate school. If I moved away. If I left something behind. It propelled me forward in the directions I knew I needed to go.

It’s hard to put your finger on the brilliance of Tom Petty, but I think it’s about his ability to distill an entire world of emotion into a simple, unadorned line. Almost like a mantra.

People often say that Hemingway packed more meaning into fewer words than almost all other writers.

Tom Petty is cut from the same cloth.

We don’t think of him the way we think of Bob Dylan, as a poetic explorer who blew our minds with virtuosic lyrical performances, nor do we think of him the way we think of Bruce Springsteen, as a sort of rock ’n’ roll John Steinbeck. He was not an avant-garde chameleon like David Bowie, nor was he a limitlessly talented provocateur like Prince. He was not the apotheosis of cool like Lou Reed.

His genius was something different.

Steven Hyden wrote a great article about Petty in 2014 for Grantland, in which he describes the magic of Tom Petty as his “ability to write really simple songs that seem OK the first time you hear them and incredible after the 100th time.” And I think this is pretty spot on.

In that same vein, my best friend and I used to joke that Petty was the most truthful songwriter of all time. Everything he said seemed patently, enduringly true. There was not a hint of dissemblance or falsity or manipulation in any song Petty every wrote. He gave it to you straight. Every time.

“Learning to Fly” is one of my all-time favorite Tom Petty songs. Much like the film, The Great Escape, it’s one of those simple, yet astonishing metaphors for life. The chorus is classic Petty. Simple and straightforward. But so deeply true you feel it in your nerve endings:

“I’m learning to fly,

But I ain’t got wings.

Coming down,

Is the hardest thing.”

The human condition is exactly that. It’s like learning to fly without wings. Learning to find meaning despite impermanence. Coming down, giving up your illusions, embracing this impermanence, is the hardest thing. These are lessons we learn, unlearn, and re-learn throughout our lives.

In the song “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” Petty starts the chorus by singing “let’s get to the point.” And that’s the quintessential thing about Tom Petty. He always got straight to the point. His whole oeuvre is straight to the point, and we listen to him, turn to him, and rely on him when we want someone to get straight to the point, when, heartbroken, we just want to tell a former lover, “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” when we look a difficult situation in the face and say we “Won’t Back Down,” when, knocked on our backs, we want to believe that “Even the Losers” get lucky sometimes, or when we just want to forget about everything else in the world because, hey, “Here Comes My Girl.”

Rest in peace, Tom. Thanks for the music.

Why Precision in Language is Important

 

The way in which we use language on an everyday basis, though not the sexiest topic, is worth some serious attention, particularly today, when it seems as though our collective vocabulary is shrinking at a particularly alarming rate.

Why should anybody care about this?

Being imprecise with language is insidious. It’s something people don’t normally spend time thinking about, and yet it has a negative cognitive effect which, on a large scale, causes very real problems that we, as a people, tend to overlook.

What do I mean by being imprecise?

Well, for an easy example, watch Donald Trump speak in any interview.

We transmute thought into language and deliver our thoughts to the world with language. It’s one thing to have an elegantly simple, yet profound thought, which you express in simple terms. In fact, there’s real beauty in this. It is entirely another thing, however, to have a thought you perfunctorily or sloppily articulate in a way that does not accurately convey the thought or, perhaps worse, conveys a different thought, or an array of different thoughts you had no intention of conveying.

This seems like splitting hairs, I know. But this kind of imprecision, collectively, does some real damage.

There are four problems I see with this, three of which are societal and extremely relevant in our current cultural milieu.

1. Flattening of Meaning

Being imprecise with language flattens meaning.

What does this mean?

This means that an imprecision can take an immensely complex situation, or a nuanced, valuable thought, and flatten it into something reductive (potentially dangerously reductive), something oversimplified, or something that is simply no longer an accurate representation.

This also leads to ignorance. When exceptionally convoluted situations are described and couched in imprecise, oversimplified terms, we remain ignorant of very real complexity, complexity which is, in fact, the reality.

For example, describing a foreign policy situation in a particular region of the world as simply “very good” or “very bad” essentially means nothing. There are a variety of different ways to articulate a complicated foreign policy situation which would, with varying degrees of success, convey the challenges, the successes, the failures, the outlook, the strategy, etc. But simply saying it’s very good or very bad robs the listener, the person to whom the words are directed, of meaningful information. Done intentionally, this is downright scary.

2. Shrinking of the Cultural Lexicon

When we’re frequently imprecise and lazy with the words we use, it becomes habit. When it becomes habit we are effectively shrinking the vocabulary with which we can convey what we think. When we limit the way we can convey thoughts in this way we limit our thoughts themselves. And this, carried out collectively, is cultural regression.

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein

A shrinking of the cultural lexicon, of the words we use to convey meaning, results in bigger and bigger hurdles to accessing the real, accurate, precise articulation of complex thoughts and complex situations, which, in turn, create bigger and bigger hurdles to any understanding of these same complex thoughts and situations.

This, in the aggregate, makes us dumber as a country. Which is not good.

3. Less Clarity of Thought

Words are the vehicles we use to convey our thoughts. While speaking imprecisely could, admittedly (on occasion), simply be the result of a lack of time or interest, it can also (more frequently) be the result of an incomplete thought.

Notice when you tend to use imprecise, practically meaningless language. It’s usually when you haven’t thought about something enough to have formulated something more precise, something more meaningful. You speak without precision when your thoughts haven’t been worked on enough to require precision.

Striving to speak precisely forces us to slow our brains down to actually complete thoughts, to chisel and sharpen them, so that an accurate verbalization requires precision.

4. Boring Writing

This is more of an annoyance than a major societal harm, though, again, on a large enough scale this will also have negative cultural effects.

Imprecise writing is boring to read. Simple as that.

Takeaways:

Take the time to formulate your thoughts. Use precise language to accurately convey those thoughts. And try to avoid using “very good” as a descriptor if you can help it.