I decided to re-read Fahrenheit 451 with my eldest this last week. I don’t think that I have read this classic Bradbury text since high school. What I had remembered about the book was that it described a world in which books were banned and the job of firefighters was to track down books and burn them. Written in 1953, I also remembered it was a response to the moral panics of the McCarthy era and the book burning activities in Nazi Germany. I remember being horrified to learn that book burning was a thing. Thirty years later, I still treat books like precious objects.
What I had forgotten over these last decades is that the book is also a story about screens, described in the book as “parlor walls.” In Bradbury’s dystopic world, screens are not the attractor but the substitute for other things that are intentionally restricted. Books, poetry, plays, and arts are suppressed in this world because they invite people to feel, think, and question — and this is seen as problematic. Screens are nearly mandated as an opiate for the masses, meant to pacify people. Kids are expected to be staring at screens and not asking questions. In other words, the badness of screens are not about screens themselves but the social configuration that made screens the dominant social, entertainment, and interactive outlet.
It’s also notable how social fabrics are narrated in this text. The main character is a firefighter named Montag, but his wife Mildred spends her days engaging with her “family” on these parlor walls in a constant stream of meaningless chatter about nothing in particular. To talk about anything of substance and merit is verboten: the goal is to never upset anyone in this society. Only niceties will do. This “family” includes various neighbors who are presumably friends, but also celebrities available to everyone. Notably, Montag pays extra so that these celebrities’ speech acts directly address Mildred by name in a personalized fashion that makes her feel more connected to the celebrity. Oh, parasociality and algorithms as imagined in the 1950s. This society has not devolved into trolling. Instead, it is a screen world of such boringness that the government can use the high speed robot chase at the end of the tale to direct the energy of everyone.
I had also completely forgotten how this book sees children. In short, children are treated with disdain as a problem that society must manage. It reflects an attitude that was commonplace in the 1950s where children were seen as a danger that must be managed rather than a vulnerable population that needed support. This book is a stark reminder of how far we’ve shifted from being afraid OF children to being afraid FOR them even as the same source of fears remain. And so in Bradbury’s world, children are plugged into screens all day not for their benefit, but for the benefit of adults. (Side note: don’t forget that compulsory high school was created only a few decades before as a jailing infrastructure to benefit adults and protect the morality of adolescents.)
The role of medication is also intriguing in this world. Mildred is addicted to sleeping pills, which she needs to separate herself from her parlor walls at night. And medicine is easily available to deal with the side effects by eliminating memories and increasing the checked out state of everyone. Of course, the opening scene of the book centers on Mildred overdosing and not even realizing the gravity of that. Indeed, the medics in this world accept that they must regularly revive people from overdosing on sleeping pills.
All of this is to say that the plot of Fahrenheit 451 centers both on Montag’s attempt to reckon with censorship as well as how he is unable to extract Mildred from her mundane and unhealthy relationship to her way of life, even when she’s on the brink of death. It is about seeing screens as the product of disturbing political choices, not the thing that drives them. I couldn’t help but be fascinated by how inverted this is to today’s conversation.
Over the last two years, I’ve been intentionally purchasing and reading books that are banned. I wanted to re-read Fahrenheit 451 because of the contemporary resurgence of book banning. But in actually rereading this book, I couldn’t help but marinate on the entanglement between fears about screens, repression of knowledge, disgust towards children, and conflicted visions of happiness. I also kept thinking about how different the theory of change is in this book compared with how these conversations go in the present. In short, Montag (and the various foils he works with) aren’t really focused on destroying the screens — they are wholly focused on embracing, saving, and sharing knowledge from books. Here, I’m reminded of an era in which education was seen as a path forward not simply a site to be controlled.
The people in Bradbury’s world aren’t happy. They are zombies. But Bradbury recognizes that they are structurally configured, a byproduct of a world that was designed to prevent them from thinking, connecting, questioning, and being physically engaged. Instead, he offers us Clarisse — his sole child character — who teaches Montag how to see the world differently. How to ask questions, how to engage with the physical world, how to not take for granted the social configuration. She invites him to open his eyes. She’s also the one and only character who is actively willing to challenge the status quo.
The counter to Clarisse is Montag’s boss, a character who clearly knows how the society has been configured. He fully recognizes that the banning of books is a ruse for political control. He has no qualms with reinforcing the status quo. So his job as a firefighter is to repress resistance. Books and screens aren’t the real enemy to an authoritarian state — knowledge is.
Fahrenheit 451 is unquestionably a tale about the caustic consequences of banning books and repressing knowledge. But it’s also an invitation to see the structural conditions that enable and support such repression. It’s easy to want to fight the symptoms, but Bradbury invites us to track the entanglements. Little did I realize just how much I would value rereading this book at this moment in time and with my kiddo. Thank you Ray Bradbury.
For better or worse, I’m spending a bit too much time thinking about the rise in efforts to oppress, sanction, and harm youth under the deeply disturbing trends towards parental control, parental surveillance, and state paternalism. I’ll come back to these topics this fall.
In the meantime, apropos of Fahrenheit 451, I hope folks are tracking how conservative states are now rejecting support from the American Library Association, accusing librarians of exposing children to books that include content they don’t like. ::shaking head:: Next week is “Banned Books Week.” Support the ALA.
Researchers are also increasingly under attack by those who disagree with their findings or for otherwise producing knowledge that is uncomfortable or inconvenient. While this is happening in multiple domains right now (ranging from scholars focused on climate change to youth mental health), scholars working on topics related to disinformation are facing this acutely at the moment. Around the country, researchers are being sued and their institutions are being pressured to turn over communications to Congressional committees. This is starting to feel a lot like the McCarthy era for scholars, especially with universities being ill-equipped (or actively unmotivated) to support researchers.
See why Bradbury’s book felt really poignant right now?