The popular novel 1984 by George Orwell tells the story of a society that is controlled by a large, all-seeing government that controls the way of life down to the realities we believe. While 1984 is a good warning against the dangers of an overreaching government that spies on it citizens, especially in the era of secret NSA programs and international surveillance, is it the warning we need today? I think there is a similar novel that should serve as a warning to our society: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of a man named Guy Montag who is a fireman, but not in the sense that we know the job. Instead of extinguishing fires, Montag’s job is to set fires, specifically to set fire to books. Montag eventually grows wary of the way that his society treats knowledge and eventually begins collecting books, before fleeing the place he lives with the government in hot pursuit.
While it is the government’s job to dispose of books and to punish any and all who read them, they aren’t to blame for the origin of the practice. In Fahrenheit 451, the government is carrying out the will of the people. This is where the warning is, not against a government that violently purges intellectualism (while that is something to be warned of), but against a society that discards the knowledge written in books, shames intellectuals.
Why does the society in Fahrenheit 451 grow to hate books? The first reason is that an over-dependence on technology and reduction in size of writings led to a population that just didn’t have the concentration to read even a paragraph, let alone a novel. Stories get reduced to summaries which get reduced to one-line factoids. Books just weren’t practical anymore. We live in a world where people base their opinions off of extravagant headlines without doing as much as to open the article, and even fewer judge the authenticity of the claim. We are all guilty of this to a degree, and the over-saturation of information is partially to blame. No one has the time to become well-read on a huge range of issues and read every article, so naturally we take the easy way out and rely on eye-grabbing headlines to draw our opinions from. That doesn’t mean however, that we should continue to browse headlines for ones that catch our eyes and confirm our beliefs. We should seek out quality, verifiable information and take some time to read an article before we draw our worldview around it. And while we are at it, lets start filling our minds with engaging, stimulating thoughts, rather than cheap thrills from reality television and the like. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Future generations will look back on TV as the lead in the water pipes that slowly drove the Romans mad”.
The second reason for the anti-book sentiment in Fahrenheit 451 is the controversial content of books. Books contain the collective written knowledge of mankind, and in those histories are some unpleasant truths. Some writings are criticisms on the natural state of man, and hearing those criticisms can make anyone uncomfortable. People would rather not face these flaws in their own selves and would like to sweep the harsh realities of life under the rug. As a result, people in Fahrenheit 451 start to look on books as reminders of the darker aspects of life, reminders that they would like to erase.
“They [books] show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless”.
Naturally, when the government takes notice of the anti-book sentiment in the society, they act upon the will of the people, as any good democracy does. They use the removal of books as a way to control and stifle conversation and to smash dissent. By replacing substantial knowledge with mindless entertainment, the government found it all to easy to control the people. As the author of the novel, Ray Bradbury said “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture; just get people to stop reading them”.
“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”
What does any democratic government do when the people don’t like something? Ban it! It’s just a government carrying out the will of the people, isn’t that the job of a democracy? Even if the people in power realized the value of intellectualism, they must follow the wants of the people, lest they be derided as an authoritarian, dictator, or an elitist.
“Oh God, the terrible tyranny of the majority”.
Fahrenheit 451 gives us a warning, not against big brother or the other, but ourselves. It shows us what happens when anti-intellectualism, hiding from the truth, and a loss of attention span takes over the mind of a society. While the story is a hyperbole, as is 1984 and every other dystopian novel, it gives us a warning to save ourselves from ourselves. Remember, it’s We, The People.