LIFE IMITATES RAY BRADBURY: Fahrenheit 451 turns 50. John J. Miller writes:
Jules Verne is famous among science-fiction writers for predicting 20th-century technologies, such as submarines and rocket ships. Mr. Bradbury rivals him in “Fahrenheit 451.” He envisioned the popularity of headset radios, plus interactive TV and live news broadcasts.
In one scene, Mr. Bradbury’s protagonist–a renegade fireman who commits the crime of reading–tries to evade his pursuers by running down a street. He looks through the windows of the houses he passes and sees the chase being shown on television, as if he were O.J. watching himself in a white Bronco.
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Mr. Bradbury insists that the purpose of “Fahrenheit 451” was not to prophesy. “I wasn’t trying to predict the future,” he says. “I was trying to prevent it.”
In one immediate sense, he failed. In 1979, he discovered that “some cubby-hole editors” had bowdlerized his book in 98 places. One line–“Feel like I’ve a hangover. God, I’m hungry”–became “Feel like I’ve a headache. I’m hungry.” The changes first appeared in a 1967 edition for high-school students, but it wasn’t until Mr. Bradbury learned of the problem a dozen years later and complained that his publisher saw the irony of censoring a powerful anticensorship novel. “I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book,” he wrote of the incident.
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Today, Mr. Bradbury is more concerned with another problem that he thinks he didn’t prevent. “There’s no reason to burn books if you don’t read them,” he says. “The education system in this country is just terrible, and we’re not doing anything about it.”
One of the often-overlooked details of “Fahrenheit 451” is that the censorship Mr. Bradbury describes was not imposed from the top by a ruthless government. Rather, it seeped up from the indifferent masses. As a villain explains: “School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. . . . No wonder books stopped selling.” (Emphasis mine.)
I’d argue the last sentence, at least for the moment (Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and Borders all seem to be doing just fine, thankyouverymuch), but as usual, Mr. Bradbury is spot-on. Fahrenheit 451 is one of the great dystopian novels of the 20th century, and can easily be read alongside the greatest, 1984, as a warning of the evils of socialism, taken to their logical extreme. As Ayn Rand (who could write a mean dystopian novel or two herself) once wrote:
There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt.