I was eager to read Fahrenheit 451 again. It was on the required reading list when I was in middle school, and while I remember enjoying it, all that really stuck with me over the years was the almost sensory experiences of burning books and the visceral fear of a spider-legged, mechanical dog.
What struck me most as an adult was the scathing indictment laid down by Captain Beatty. I remember thinking that Bradbury’s message in this book was that the simple act of burning books is bad — something that is hardly controversial just about anywhere outside of the Hitler Youth. But it’s not.
The message is more about the vital role of critical thinking that underpins intelligent literature. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wall-sized video screens — it’s when they blare out homogenized, inoffensive, raw audio and visual stimulation that precludes thought or discussion that they become dangerous. “Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery,” as Beatty says.
I feel as though Bradbury anticipated the nature of the internet as well, with the line: “Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.”
Captain Beatty’s voice now lingers in my subconscious, every time I pick up the Xbox controller or stray from my work to browse Reddit for time-wasting links. Why ask the hard questions when I can just be happy? I still feel the desire to build things of permanence even as my years are entertained away from me, but it’s so difficult to know where to start.
For the record, I refuse to acknowledge the so-called “irony” of reading Fahrenheit 451 on a Kindle. Yes, it is a screen. That is as far as the irony goes. The accessibility and non-flammability of digital literature supersede that childish bit of needling.