I recently watched the film version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I had resisted seeing it – or reading the novel, which was published in 1953 – because I thought I already knew the drill (and I was right): books are good (very, very good); book burning is bad (very, very bad). Reading makes you a better, more compassionate human being. The book burner is depicted as a uniformed fascist. People who don’t read are lacking in feeling; they are, as the main character calls them, “zombies.”
In Bradbury’s world of the future books are a dire threat to a regimented society in which everyone should be an obedient, unthinking automaton. Thus there are firemen, whose job is to seek out hidden books and burn them. Reading is done in secret; in the case of one woman, her books are so precious to her that she chooses to burn with them.
But the future is now, and it turns out that there was no need for flamethrowers. Indifference will do the job quite nicely. A book unwanted is as dead as one in ashes.
True, there are books galore being published every year. But – and this is a vital distinction – how many of those books qualify as the type that Bradbury was holding up to be cherished? In this day of polls one should be conducted in which a million Americans, selected at random, are asked if they’ve read twelve books from the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century list (not that I agree with half of their choices, but I want to use an “official” source). The books selected should not be taught in high school or college, nor should they be difficult reading (such as Ulysses, Under the Volcano) or notorious (Lolita, Portnoy’s Complaint). Here are a dozen which would do quite nicely: Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, John Dos Passos’ U.S.A., Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale, Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle, E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius.
Based on my observations of the world around me, far from academia, I believe that less than 5% of those polled would have read even one of the books.
But I have a fresh argument supporting the decline-of-reading theory. It has to do with a phenomenon that has almost disappeared: the novel published in serial form, in a magazine or newspaper. I was already aware that crowds would gather awaiting the next installment of a Dickens’ novel, not only in London but in Paris, Moscow and New York. A little research produced this partial list, a kind of sampler, of other novels first published serially: Far From the Madding Crowd, The Three Musketeers, Anna Karenina, Portrait of a Lady, Vanity Fair, Pere Goriot, Around the World in 80 Days, Middlemarch, Tender is the Night, The Way We Live Now, Treasure Island, The Magnificent Ambersons, Crime and Punishment, Germinal, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Madame Bovary, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Age of Innocence.
Some are mainly entertainment (though on a high level). Others are serious Literature. Yet people wanted to read the next installment. A magazine or newspaper would print these novels only if doing so was financially beneficial to them.
I wrote that the serial novel has “almost” disappeared. For the right material an audience still exists. Rolling Stone published Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities in biweekly installments and Armistad Maupin’s Tales of the City ran for years in the San Francisco Chronicle. Both were topical, controversial, and extremely readable (with Wolfe’s novel on the Literature side of the scale and Maupin’s on the entertainment end). But there are so few examples of such successes! Today only a handful of large circulation magazines are left that publish a single short story. Certainly none would serialize a National Book Award winner; that type of rarified fiction, emanating from university MFA programs, has no appeal for the general public. As for what does make big bucks, the novels of the same dozen authors dominate the bestseller list, each providing their formulaic popcorn for the mind. They are not the books that Bradbury was talking about. The twelve books I selected from the Modern Library list are. They are accessible to the reader; they have originality and substance. They are not outdated (there’s no expiration date on excellence). They will have emerged to the awareness of one who loves good books.
In Bradbury’s futuristic world enough people loved good books to necessitate squads of fireman to ferret them out. Today the percentage of true readers is probably about the same. We are free to read, and some do; but the vast majority, after their formal education ends, don’t.
Which brings up another aspect of Fahrenheit 451 to consider: whether the death of the book (death by indifference) has had the dire results predicted by Bradbury. In the era when reading was most popular were people more compassionate? A quick study of 18th and early 19th century history gives us the answer. The same year that Londoners were weeping over the death of Little Nell, British military might was forcing China to allow opium to be unloaded in its port cities (the poppy was grown in India, another British colony, and the Chinese population presented a large market for addiction). Wars abounded in the 1800’s, and the factors that led to World War I were inexorably moving into place. That catastrophe would never have happened if enough enlightened minds in England, France, Russia and Germany had prevailed. Yet two gunshots in Sarajevo set off a lockstep to a gruesome folly, while crowds cheered. And besides the warfare, these societies were guided by the principle of greed, on both the personal and the national level. The poor were neglected and exploited in a brutish way.
I only need to look at myself, a lifelong reader, and ask “Am I a better person for having read a lot of books?” I have to answer “No.” I have merely been entertaining myself. I look at my non-reading friends, and I do not see unfeeling zombies. I’m no better than most (many are better human beings than I am). Has reading made me more intelligent (as some claim it does)? I do believe that reading quality work exercises the mind. But what of the restaurant owner, the real estate agent, the crane operator? Are they not, in their jobs, constantly working out difficult problems?
An argument against the uplifting effects of great literature is found in the biographies of the men and women who produced it. Many led miserable lives, and a good number did much damage to others in their personal relationships. In today’s literary world, among both the successes and the failures, I observe much contention, jealousy, manipulation, callousness – even maliciousness. Where’s the wisdom, the openness, the compassion?
At the end of Fahrenheit 451 the Montag character, once a fireman but transformed by the power of the written word into a reader, finds refuge in a community of Book People. It is portrayed as a serene, pastoral, kindly world of the enlightened. Each person in this community memorizes a complete book; they become a living version of that book. They pass it on to a young person who also memorizes it and keeps it alive. The actual book is destroyed after someone “becomes” it. The idea behind this is that books are living things; they become your flesh and blood. In a commentary that accompanied the film, Bradbury says that he never sees the end of the movie without tears coming to his eyes. My reaction was a bit different. I was wondering if they’d accept a poem.
I’m merely being realistic and honest (for aren’t those virtues?). I’m not good at memorizing. Vanity Fair is a great novel – but ye gads, man! Also, isn’t this whole idea rather restricting? You dedicate yourself to one book; I want to read new ones. New wonderful books exist, and I want to find the next and the next.
Because, setting all cynicism aside, my personal belief, my credo, is that works of art, in whatever forms they take, are sacred and should survive. Survive for me and for others who may care. If a time comes when no one cares, they should still survive, for who knows if a renaissance may follow us. Though a disquieting thought comes to mind. Bradbury’s burning of books may be taking place. And now the loss is complete and irrevocable. In our constricted and insular literary landscape works of real worth – books that, in the past, would have been published – are submitted as unsolicited manuscripts and are summarily rejected. At their authors’ deaths it is quite possible that these manuscripts, full of living characters, wind up being dumped in a backyard incinerator, where they are soon in flames.
Read Phillip Routh’s previous essay “The Rise and Fall of the American Bestseller.”