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.”

Literature is Your Secret Weapon for Self-Improvement

 

While it’s no secret that highly successful people tend to read extensively and voraciously, we often focus on the more obviously business-related or performance-related works on their bookshelves and treat literary fiction almost as an afterthought.

Long confined to liberal arts campuses, criticized (sometimes vehemently) for its alleged uselessness in the real world of commerce and business, of gainful employment and upward mobility, the reading of literary fiction, we now know, has scientifically backed benefits that are just as valuable (if not more) to the business community, as they are to diligent English majors in libraries across America.

In a much talked about study in 2008, professors Raymond A. Mar and Keith Oatley asserted that “carefully crafted literary stories” are “simulations of selves in the social world” that “function to abstract social information so that it can be better understood, generalized to other circumstances, and acted upon.” They argue that “engaging in the simulative experiences of fiction literature can facilitate the understanding of others who are different from ourselves and can augment our capacity for empathy and social inference.”

Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, authors of the 2017 book, Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanitiesexplain this phenomenon in simpler terms. To know people, Morson and Schapiro say, “read their stories.”

So reading literary fiction helps us understand people. But why should we care? How useful is this, really?

“Reading a great novel,” Morson and Schapiro continue, “you identify with its characters and spend countless hours feeling from within what it is like to be someone else. You experience the world as someone of a different social class, gender, religion, sexuality, moral understanding or countless other factors that differentiate human experience. And if you are going to bet on how markets will act, you sure better have an appreciation for what drives the actors. In other words, you better be able to put yourself in their place.”

This is not the usual argument we hear about literature’s usefulness, but new research is revealing benefits of reading literary fiction that were previously either dismissed or unknown. We’re used to hearing beleaguered humanities students extolling the cultural and societal value of literature, but literature is now being recognized by the business world and the start-up world as something that doesn’t merely enrich us intellectually, but as something that can also help us develop intangible skills for successfully running businesses, investing in the stock market, managing teams of employees, and creating better products.

Chief among these intangible skills is emotional intelligence. In another study, conducted in 2013 by social psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York City, researchers gave participants different types of writing to read. Some participants were given literary fiction, some were given fiction bestsellers, some were given well-written nonfiction, and others were given nothing. Participants were then given a series of tests that measured a person’s ability to understand emotions, predict expectations, or understand beliefs in specific scenarios. More succinctly, the tests were designed to measure empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence.

The researchers found that the readers of literary fiction, and not merely popular fiction, performed better on all of the administered tests, results which were attributed to literary fiction’s capacity to encourage “readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.” Literary fiction, the researchers argued, increased emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence, the ability to understand how others think and feel, has far-reaching effects on business. Understanding the thoughts and feelings of one’s employees makes for smarter, more effective leadership and a more cohesive, collaborative team environment. Understanding the thoughts and feelings of customers makes for more meaningful marketing, more responsive service, and a deeper understanding of what people like or dislike about your product and why. Understanding the thoughts and feelings of others makes for better preparation and performance in negotiations. And, perhaps most importantly, understanding the thoughts and feelings of others makes for richer, more fulfilling personal relationships, which lead to increased happiness and productivity.

With so many benefits, we might wonder why reading literary fiction isn’t frequently found on lists of daily habits and routines we should be following the way, say, exercise and meditation are. I posit two reasons for this discrepancy.

First, the positive effects of reading literary fiction aren’t tangible or immediately measurable. It does not instantly produce noticeable improvement the way exercise triggers all kinds of positive chemical reactions in our brains. Reading literary fiction increases our understanding of other people, which, though incredibly important, is a bit less noticeable than a runner’s high, or the way we feel after meditating for twenty minutes.

Second, we’ve been sort of culturally conditioned to view reading literary fiction as a waste of time. Shane Parrish acknowledges this in his Farnam Street Blog: “We all have a feeling that literature is important. And yet many of us avoid the category altogether, feeling it’s a waste of time to pick up literature when we can learn so much from non-fiction.” But, as Parrish points out, this is simply an inaccurate view of it. “Literature,” he continues, “isn’t a waste of time at all. In fact, literature saves us time.”

And this is because literature vastly expands our emotional understanding of a wide and endlessly varied array of human experience, which, in turn, enhances our ability to relate to and empathize with others.

Make reading literature a part of your daily routine. The benefits may not be of the immediately measurable sort, but they are profound, long-lasting, and valuable for us all.