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.

 

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H.G. Wells and the 21st Century

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In my experiment of bringing back regular reading, I started H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, which I found in an awesome electronic collection of 25 of his novels for just $1.99. (Here it is if you’re interested: The Collected Novels of H.G. Wells: 25 Books in One Volume (Unexpurgated Edition) (Halcyon Classics)).

Think about that. 25 novels and no broken wrists from trying to hold the volume. My love affair with ebooks continues. And I’d already purchased it, was out somewhere and thought, “I’d like to be reading,” and then I was. It’s magical.

Anyway, I’d always wanted to read it, but it was mentioned in the context of “Orphan Black,” and I figured now was as good a time as any. What struck me in the little bit I’ve read so far is, like Dickens, even with the stiff language, his writing immediately pulls you in.

Which got me thinking. Word choice is important, of course, because you cannot convey what you mean without the right parts. But construction can override the words themselves, making the formal Victorian language propel you forward.

Poor construction can also stop you dead while reading.

It’s not only the cement and the mortar and the trowel when you’re writing. It’s the scaffolding. And if the scaffolding collapses, so does the story.

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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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Dr. Seuss’s ABC for A-to-Z

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It’s all about the alphabet in April, and we can’t have the alphabet without asking the timeless question: “Big A little a, what begins with A?” Actually, technically you can but it would be a lot less amusing. Dr. Seuss’s picture book is an absolute classic, and the alphabet should feel very lucky to have it. (Please note: I’ve adopted the book’s punctuation of the title. It’s definitely funnier).

 


Dr. Seuss’s ABC by Dr. Seuss. Amazon for $3.99. Arguably the most entertaining alphabet book ever written, this classic Beginner Book by Dr. Seuss is perfect for children learning their ABCs. Featuring a fantastic cast of zany characters — from Aunt Annie’s alligator to the Zizzer-Zazzer-Zuzz, with a lazy lion licking a lollipop and an ostrich oiling an orange owl — Dr. Seuss’s ABC is a must-have for every young child’s library.
Originally created by Dr. Seuss, Beginner Books encourage children to read all by themselves, with simple words and illustrations that give clues to their meaning.

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Ticket for the Lottery

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I don’t know if Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” was the first short story I read that gave me chills as the twist came around, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable. Whether you are writer, reader, or both, her masterful use of suspense is worth revisiting, and makes her an author everyone should read.


The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson. Amazon for $8.89. The Lottery, one of the most terrifying stories written in this century, created a sensation when it was first published in The New Yorker. “Power and haunting,” and “nights of unrest” were typical reader responses. This collection, the only one to appear during Shirley Jackson’s lifetime, unites “The Lottery:” with twenty-four equally unusual stories. Together they demonstrate Jack son’s remarkable range–from the hilarious to the truly horrible–and power as a storyteller.