I’ll admit it. As a writer and an avid reader, I fret over the future of the printed book. If they vanished, I would miss the feel of them in my hand and the smell of the pages, the opportunity to dialogue and argue with an author by underlining memorable phrases and ideas or scribbling comments and objections in the margins. I have not yet successfully made the jump to e-books. But even if and when that happens, the companions I already have sitting on my shelves will probably remain on their perches for a good long while.
Over the summer months, my wife and I have been reading novels together. Actually, she usually crochets or cooks while I read to her, giving me the chance to both narrate and play multiple parts (my fantasy job: voice actor for Pixar). We recently finished Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic, Fahrenheit 451, whose title refers to the temperature at which books burn. Written in the early 1950s, the novel is in some ways chillingly prescient.
In Bradbury’s imagined future, it has become illegal to own books. Violators must have their entire houses purged with fire. This is not the oppressive crackdown of a brutal regime, but the will of a people who have come to define happiness in terms of sensory stimulation. They fear the subversive power of the printed word to undermine their addiction to a life of noisy and colorful distraction. Neighbors therefore betray each other, then come out in carnival spirit to watch houses burn.
Guy Montag is a “fireman”–not someone who extinguishes fires but a public servant who is paid to start them. A man of conscience who develops a forbidden fascination with books, Montag becomes a fugitive from justice. Eventually, as the world around him is obliterated by war, he joins a small group of drifters who represent the novel’s only ray of hope: if books must be burned, then there must also be people who will commit the classics to memory before committing them to the flames. Montag himself becomes the repository of Ecclesiastes. In the face of nuclear Armageddon, the novel ends with him quoting the book of Revelation in the hope of a better future.
I’m not equating the eventual demise of printed books with Bradbury’s nightmare scenario. But the novel is unsettling. Bradbury took his concerns about the McCarthyism of his era and extrapolated into the future, envisioning the self-imposed censorship of a humanity reduced to being consumers of empty entertainment, in thrall to the technologies that provide it.
To Bradbury, books symbolized the willingness to think uncomfortable thoughts, to pause to ask questions and seek answers, to look at the world through different eyes. We take our technology for granted, thinking we are the master, but are mastered by it in turn. Devices designed to save us time to slow down instead hurry us along by giving us a taste for speed. We lose the patience for reading and reflection, meditation and meaningful conversation, preferring the sound bite, the quick fix, the accepted social script.
Today, we take the very existence of books for granted; one day, they may become little more than an archaic afterthought. Montag the fireman, however, a stranger to the Bible, treated every word as a precious gift, something to be memorized and not forgotten. If there is anything about Bradbury’s dystopian vision that rings true, then the world may need more than ever those who will take the time to memorize, reflect on, and embody the Book.