Communion Of Dreams

Fahrenheit 451: “It’s not about censorship.”

Now, Bradbury has decided to make news about the writing of his iconographic work and what he really meant. Fahrenheit 451 is not, he says firmly, a story about government censorship. Nor was it a response to Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose investigations had already instilled fear and stifled the creativity of thousands.This, despite the fact that reviews, critiques and essays over the decades say that is precisely what it is all about. Even Bradbury’s authorized biographer, Sam Weller, in The Bradbury Chronicles, refers to Fahrenheit 451 as a book about censorship.Bradbury, a man living in the creative and industrial center of reality TV and one-hour dramas, says it is, in fact, a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature.

Ray Bradbury has a subtle point to make in trying to change how we view his novel Fahrenheit 451, saying that the death of reading is more important than the imposition of censorship. It is a valid point, and shows some of the depth the author has now, and indeed had even at the time of the writing of the book, since the text is clear in how he saw the possibility of his dystopia occuring.

But this does not make the generations of scholars, teachers and readers wrong when they focus on the overarching role of censorship by the government in the novel. Bradbury has a right to point to the additional messages and meanings of his work, as any author does. But in some very important ways, the way the work is understood beyond the author’s own intent is just as valid, perhaps moreso. Any text is a living document, seen with new eyes each generation – eyes that understand it in the context of their own lives, their own experience, their own society. This is how we read any great work of literature, from the Bible to Declaration of Independence. Jefferson may have penned his document as a justification of colonial rebellion against England, but it is now seen in a broader context, as one of the great treatise of human rights. George Orwell may well have been writing a cautionary tale about the future of the Soviet Union, the West, and Asia, but we understand 1984 now as a more general warning of the power of a fascist state to control, corrupt and destroy anyone it wishes.

Ray Bradbury is welcome to add to the discussion of his work, to provide information for his intent in writing it, to explain his understanding of the most important message it contains. We, as readers, should listen to his thoughts on the book. But his comments are not definitive, rather are part of a dialog between author and reader. Just as he brought his experience and understanding of the world to the writing of the book, we must bring our own experience and understanding of the world to the reading of it. Fahrenheit 451 may not be about censorship, but drawing the lesson from it that censorship is to be avoided is completely legitimate.

Jim Downey

(Via a comment from Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing. Cross posted to UTI.)

5 Comments so far
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Interesting. I read a recent issue of “Funny Times” where the cover art showed a man sitting in a chair in a huge library – stories high, shelf after shelf of books – and he is watching TV.

I know that I have friends who would rather see the movie version than read a book. I think I am unusual because I’ve watched miniseries on TV and wished there was a book version I could read instead.

I think Mr. Bradbury has a point – it is easier to destroy books if you do not value them. Like the bookseller in KC who ended up burning books he could not sell, to make a point. If they have no other value, why not use them for fuel?

Comment by Margo Lynn

Sure he has a point (though he didn’t use the books as ‘fuel’ to power anything other than a bonfire). I think, actually, the bigger danger is the death of imagination: people become so used to CGI-pablum that they can’t envision anything for themselves. Don’t get me wrong, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was brilliant – and the special effects pure genius (as one example). But there is still something lost between relying on a film-maker for your image of what is in a book, rather than on what your own mind creates as you engage the text.
Jim Downey

Comment by Communion of Dreams

I have a strong emotional reaction to the burning of books. Sort of like some peoples reaction to the burning of the flag or a dollar bill.

Part of me understands that it is just a symbol, writing on paper, and that there are many copies of most books.

It is sad that reading is not valued as much now as it used to be. Perhaps this is just nostalgia for my youth. But I really think that something is lost when, as a society, we read less.

Comment by Frank

Frank, as a book conservator in real life, I understand *completely* where you’re coming from.

Jim Downey

Comment by Communion of Dreams

Although Bradbury validates that his book is not about censorship, how does he feel that what everyone interpreted F451 was about actually happened to his own book? Does he not feel that it’s rather ironic that his book was censored?

Comment by Leigh

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