And we could do without subtitles, too.
By Alex Trachsell
The 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 often embodies our generation’s peculiar relationship with… “boomers” (yep, I’m speaking in memes now). On the one hand, it was written by a member of the Greatest Generation, Ray Bradbury (born 1920), and was thrust upon many of us by Generation X highschool teachers. So, in keeping with our generation’s need to mislabel anything pre-dating Friends as by and for boomers, Fahrenheit 451 is already primed for rejection in the name of fighting against our least favourite generation.
On the other hand, the actual contents of Fahrenheit 451 don’t do it any favours. Bradbury seems to deride modern technology at every opportunity, soapboxing about the menace of screens and how society will disintegrate when we stop reading (his) books. It’d look about as bad if I wrote a dystopia in which the Trinity Times succumbs to Salterrae and Trinity College subsequently bans alternative papers and/or individual thought.
Naturally, the history described by the book-burning Captain Beatty can be difficult to take seriously. He whines,
“[I]n the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. …[M]any of those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet… was a one-page book that claimed: now at least you can read all the classics, keep up with your neighbours. Do you see? …Whirl man’s mind around so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!”
Overall, Fahrenheit 451 looked to my attention-deficient highschool class like a shallow attempt by an old author to save his dying medium. Knowing that many of us would rely on summaries to get by, his demand that stories be preserved in their long-winded entirety—his insistence that you’ll only comprehend the genius of (his) books if you read every last word—it all seemed a little out of touch to those rebellious highschoolers… and I tend to agree with them.
What Bradbury seems to care about most, however, is the dumbing down of society, which he paints as corresponding to the trimming down of literature (among other facets, such as education). While I agree that digests can be a product of dumbing down, I think that we can have digests without causing dumbing down.
Pragmatically, many works can be shortened without losing their ability to provoke thought. For example, The Iliad is an epic poem “about” the highs and lows of war, love, and the possibility that people thought the gods were talking to them when one side of their brain communicated to the other. Nevertheless, Book 19 of The Iliad describes Achilies donning his new armour. That’s pretty much it. Similarly, much of Book 3 is taken up by a long list of the Greek forces attacking Troy, their numbers, where they’re from and, unless the reader wants to applaud when their hometown is mentioned, one would lose very little from removing it. Simply put, not every part of every novel is thought-provoking and so literature can be condensed without losing its ability to provoke thought. In fact, this should be of little surprise to students. After all, how often are we assigned readings of entire texts over excerpts?
Additionally, how we read is largely determined by social forces, so a culture that values critical thinking can provide digests without turning everyone into a mindless consumer. In other words, if we cultivate a culture of critical thinking, it won’t matter how trimmed down our texts are. If people are eager to engage in a text’s ideas, they’ll want books to be no longer than they have to be but not so short that the ideas are lost.
If anything, it’s our consumer culture and pressure to read books in full that leads people to surface-level readings. Through Captain Beatty, Bradbury explains that social pressures, such as the need to keep up with one’s friends, is what caused Fahrenheit 451’s society to ridiculously condense Hamlet into one page. However, society can just as easily fall prone to snobbishly demanding that every book be read in full, that every album be listened to in full and that every movie be watched in full, director’s cut length. In this culture, it doesn’t really matter what one knows. The fact that one has consumed a ridiculous amount of art in full is the greatest indication of how thoughtful one is. It’s this kind of faux-intellectual culture that equates having read a lot to being smart and, thus, pressures us into consuming as much art as possible. If we didn’t care about the length of our reading list, people wouldn’t need thoughtlessly distilled literature because there’d be no point to reading it. It’s by trying to avoid being like the characters of Fahrenheit 451, by trying to seem as intellectual as possible, that we end up reading without processing.
One may object that we can’t escape treating well-read people as thoughtful or as having informed opinions on art—after all, perspective is valuable and perspective is obtained through consuming plenty of (different) art. Nevertheless, an objection like this concedes my argument. Literature which is thoughtfully edited down only helps give people more perspective because they can read more with their limited time. While we may never be able to escape the pressures to thoughtlessly speed-read, the presence of well-edited literature neither reduces nor amplifies these pressures. In other words, the culture which “[w]hirl[s] man’s mind around so fast… that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought” is the underlying problem. Bad digests are a product of it and good ones are not.
So, cliche though it may be, Bradbury and my snarky highschool classmates can find an agreement. My classmates were right to disagree with Bradbury’s portrayal of any condensation of literature as sacrilege. However, Bradbury is right to note that our superficial consumer culture is the cause of vapid condensation. There’s another thing I think we can all agree on: as a novel about critical reading and a novel I still think about years after having first read it, Fahrenheit 451 is a gosh darn good book. Perhaps by being stubbornly critical, highschoolers are exactly the kind of readers that old boomer, Bradbury, wants us to be.