Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’: A Cultural Crystal Ball

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Author’s note: This piece first appeared on the now-defunct Yahoo Contributor’s Network.

Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” is celebrated for its condemnation of censorship and groupthink, but Bradbury — a writer who has always been categorized as “science-fiction” over the tonier synonym “speculative fiction” — deserves recognition for that book’s eerie prescience of culture. What he foresaw, from six decades out, is remarkable.

Though Bradbury copyrighted “Fahrenheit 451” in 1953, as described by The Big Read, it was adapted first from a short story called “Bright Phoenix” published in 1947, and then “The Fireman,” which was published in 1950. While increasing numbers of households would get televisions in that decade, at the beginning of the ’50s TVs were new. Yet not only did he foresee them in every household, he foresaw them taking over households: huge, wall-sized televisions. Bradbury imagined ear buds with his seashell radios long before the concept existed. And, in the dreaded Hound, he saw a future of robotics far out of line with the technology of the time.

But those details are prescience of technology, which, though still a neat trick, is not quite as stunning as understanding the evolution of culture if left to its natural course. With a beauty of language also often not given the credit it is due, Bradbury says: “With schools turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.” (Del Rey 50th Anniversary Edition, pg. 58).

Bradbury writes of the condensation of thought from book to digest to blurb in a way strangely predictive of Twitter, where all ideas must fit within the constraints of 140 characters. He sees the rise of advertising so incessant it’s nearly ritualistic, and long before the advent of reality TV, he predicted shows that were little more than life itself, with home participants easily joining.

He even wrote about the future of attempts to erase any signs of age, of having lived a life, of a world lacking depth and texture, with his description that sounds predictive of Botox long before people decided injections of neurotoxins were preferable to wrinkles: “So do you see now 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.” (pg. 83).

And then there is that beauty of language that comes from its clarity, from each word in a sentence chosen for both its overt and subtle meanings while still seeing the far-off future from quite a distance. At a time when newspapers were in nearly every home, he said “I remember them dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them.” (emphasis in original; pg. 89)

There are classics that are classics through some sense of tradition, and then there are books that become classics because what they tell us about ourselves is unchanging, unencumbered by movement of culture in the world around us. “Fahrenheit 451” is about so much more than censorship. With amazing insight from more than half-a-century away, it is about the willing relinquishment of critical thinking.

 

Imagination Picks Up Hitchhikers

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I swear, it’s the last time I’ll mention it (well, except at the bottom), but Her Cousin, Much Removed is free through the end of today, April 10th. OK, on to the afternoon book.

Once I started to consider books in terms of imagination, my brain nearly short-circuited. Whether they take us back in time, or shoot us forward into the future; whether they’re about regular people or aliens who use tesseracts to travel to other words, imagination is the heartbeat of fiction. So singling out books is nearly painful.

Nearly.

Because this one is one of the most beautiful, hilarious things an imagination ever created from nothing. Towel not included.

What do you think is the most imaginative book you’ve ever read?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Amazon for $5.12. “IRRESISTIBLE!”
–The Boston Globe
Seconds before the Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for the revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who, for the last fifteen years, has been posing as an out-of-work actor.
Together this dynamic pair begin a journey through space aided by quotes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide (“A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”) and a galaxy-full of fellow travelers: Zaphod Beeblebrox–the two-headed, three-armed ex-hippie and totally out-to-lunch president of the galaxy; Trillian, Zaphod’s girlfriend (formally Tricia McMillan), whom Arthur tried to pick up at a cocktail party once upon a time zone; Marvin, a paranoid, brilliant, and chronically depressed robot; Veet Voojagig, a former graduate student who is obsessed with the disappearance of all the ballpoint pens he bought over the years.
Where are these pens? Why are we born? Why do we die? Why do we spend so much time between wearing digital watches? For all the answers stick your thumb to the stars. And don’t forget to bring a towel!
“[A] WHIMSICAL ODYSSEY…Characters frolic through the galaxy with infectious joy.”
–Publishers Weekly

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I Is Pure Imagination

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The letter I can only mean one thing to a writer of fiction. If you’re inferring that I, today, is all about imagination, then you are correct! And before we get on with I, you’re not imagining it: my cozy mystery, Her Cousin, Much Removed is still free today, April 10. Snag a copy and solve a murder.

This morning’s post features one of the most imaginative books from one of the most imaginative authors who ever graced us with his presence. As the song in the original movie adaptation says, “Come with me, and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination.” It all sprang from the brain of Roald Dahl, an entire universe too fantastic to forget, giving us the concept of a “golden ticket.” And If you haven’t read his short stories for adults, you should. They’re really creepy.


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Amazon for $3.86. Willy Wonka’s famous chocolate factory is opening at last!

But only five lucky children will be allowed inside. And the winners are: Augustus Gloop, an enormously fat boy whose hobby is eating; Veruca Salt, a spoiled-rotten brat whose parents are wrapped around her little finger; Violet Beauregarde, a dim-witted gum-chewer with the fastest jaws around; Mike Teavee, a toy pistol-toting gangster-in-training who is obsessed with television; and Charlie Bucket, Our Hero, a boy who is honest and kind, brave and true, and good and ready for the wildest time of his life!

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Fantasy, Reading’s Fabulous F-Word

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Fantasy is a huge F-word, a fantastic(ha!) category that brings to mind swords and villagers, quests and elves. But that’s only a fair-sized corner of the fantasy realm. There are the books that take an imaginative element and turn into an F-world (see what I did there? And it’s only Monday).

I can’t say, for certain, that Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth was the first fantasy I’d read when I became and independent reader. But it was the the one that burrowed into me, likely helping to form my odd, humorous aesthetic. It’s a book illustrates for readers–any readers, not just new ones–exactly what a book is supposed to do: open the gate and take you somewhere wondrous.


The Phantom Tollbooth 50th Anniversary Edition by The Phantom Tollbooth 50th Anniversary Edition. Amazon for $4.99. It has been fifty years—and millions of readers—since the world was first introduced to Milo and his adventures in the Lands Beyond with Tock, the Humbug, and the captive princesses Rhyme and Reason.
Now we have a remarkable 50th anniversary edition to honor this universally adored and deeply influential novel. This special edition will include:

• Gorgeous packaging that features the classic original art stamped and debossed on the case with a transparent acetate jacket.
• Brief essays from esteemed authors, educators, and artists, including Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins, Jeanne Birdsall, Mo Willems, and several others.
• Photos of the author and illustrator at the time of writing and today on the two-color endpapers.
• The 35th anniversary essay by Maurice Sendak.
• The complete text of the book.

A perfect gift for longstanding fans and lucky new readers, the 50th anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth is a book to cherish.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Tempting Fate this Afternoon

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I enjoy Jane Green, and I don’t care who knows it. Are her books likely to change the world? Probably not. But they will take you out of your world for a bit, and that is, in essence, the power of a book.


Tempting Fate by Jane Green. Amazon for $10.99. From Jane Green, the New York Times bestselling author of such beloved novels as Jemima J, The Beach House, Another Piece of My Heart, comes an enthralling and emotional story about how much we really understand the temptations that can threaten even the most idyllic of relationships….

Gabby and Elliott have been happily married for eighteen years. They have two teenaged daughters. They have built a life together. Forty-three year old Gabby is the last person to have an affair. She can’t relate to the way her friends desperately try to cling to the beauty and allure of their younger years…And yet, she too knows her youth is quickly slipping away. She could never imagine how good it would feel to have a handsome younger man show interest in her—until the night it happens. Matt makes Gabby feel sparkling, fascinating, alive—something she hasn’t felt in years. What begins as a long-distance friendship soon develops into an emotional affair as Gabby discovers her limits and boundaries are not where she expects them to be. Intoxicated, Gabby has no choice but to step ever deeper into the allure of attraction and attention, never foreseeing the life-changing consequences that lie ahead. If she makes one wrong move she could lose everything—and find out what really matters most.
A heartfelt and complex story, Tempting Fate will have readers gripped until they reach the very last page, and thinking about the characters long after they put the book down.

The Eyre Affair Is One of the Most Fun Reads You’ll Have

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Time for another author I love, and if you’ve never read him, you’re in for one of the biggest treats of your reading existence. He’s a reader’s writer, he’s hilarious, and his imagination will leave you spinning. If you haven’t yet tried Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, what the heck are you waiting for? You’ll be laughing in mere minutes.

And his other books are also amazing. Note: Bucking the trend, I did not, in fact, make a total fool of myself when I went to a signing of his, braving a snowstorm to get there, back when every day wasn’t a snowstorm. So there’s that, too.


The Eyre Affair: A Thursday Next Novel by Jasper Fforde. Amazon for $10.99. The first installment in Jasper Fforde’s New York Times bestselling series of Thursday Next novels introduces literary detective Thursday Next and her alternate reality of literature-obsessed England

Fans of Douglas Adams and P. G. Wodehouse will love visiting Jasper Fforde’s Great Britain, circa 1985, when time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously: it’s a bibliophile’s dream. England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem and forging Byronic verse is a punishable offense. All this is business as usual for Thursday Next, renowned Special Operative in literary detection. But when someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature and plucks Jane Eyre from the pages of Brontë’s novel, Thursday is faced with the challenge of her career. Fforde’s ingenious fantasy—enhanced by a Web site that re-creates the world of the novel—unites intrigue with English literature in a delightfully witty mix. Thursday’s zany investigations continue with six more bestselling Thursday Next novels, including One of Our Thursdays is Missing and the upcoming The Woman Who Died A Lot. Visit jasperfforde.com.

Authors I Love Category Had to Begin with This Author

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I’m adding a new category to books called “Authors I Love,” and there is no better inaugural author than the late, phenomenal Kurt Vonnegut. No one can distill the complexities of the human condition the way he did, and yet still make you laugh while slicing you clean with his words.

Brilliant.

I met him once, and as you’ll find is a common theme for me when meeting my favorite authors, became a babbling idiot. I managed to ask him, when I became somewhat coherent, how he felt about being labeled a science fiction writer back when that kind of a label was meant to sting.

In a perfect display of Vonnegutesque on the fly, he told me he wrote about science because he was a chemist and that’s what he knew.

So it goes.

Here is one of my favorites, which is little off the beaten path of his body of work.


Hocus Pocus (Kurt Vonnegut Series) by Kurt Vonnegut. Amazon for $5.99. Eugene Debs Hartke (named after the famous early 20th century Socialist working class leader) describes an odyssey from college professor to prison inmate to prison warden back again to prisoner in another of Vonnegut’s bitter satirical explorations of how and where (and why) the American dream begins to die. Employing his characteristic narrative device–a retrospective diary in which the protagonist retraces his life at its end, a desperate and disconnected series of events here in Hocus Pocus show Vonnegut with his mask off and his rhetorical devices unshielded.

Debs (and Vonnegut) see academia just as imprisoning as the corrupt penal system and they regard politics as the furnishing and marketing of lies. Debs, already disillusioned by circumstance, quickly tracks his way toward resignation and then fury. As warden and prisoner, Debs (and the reader) come to understand that the roles are interchangeable; as a professor jailed for “”radical”” statements in the classroom reported by a reactionary student, he comes to see the folly of all regulation. The “”hocus pocus”” of the novel’s title does not describe only the jolting reversals and seemingly motiveless circumstance which attend Debs’ disillusion and suffering, but also describe the political, social, and economic system of a country built upon can’t, and upon the franchising of lies.