Stuff your eyes with wonder : live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. –Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Six years ago, upon the release of the 50th anniversary edition of his classic sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury gave an interview that was included in the back of the book. In Fahrenheit 451, as in much of his work, Bradbury takes writing and reading as his primary subjects, exploring a dystopian future in which the public has lost interest entirely in reading, and books-which have become illegal-are burned as a matter of course.
“How important,” this interviewer asked Bradbury, “is reading to the health of a democracy like ours?”
“Reading,” the author replied, “is at the center of our lives.”
One year later, in 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released a report that seemed to confirm the worst. Titled Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, the report found not only that Americans are doing less literary reading every year, but that the rate of decline is actually accelerating, especially among youth. More recent reports confirm this decline. Disturbed by their findings, the NEA set to work to address what it saw as a crisis in American culture. Their solution: The Big Read.
Now in its fourth year, the Big Read is providing more than $3.7 million to nearly 300 organizations nationwide that choose to embark on a community reading program. The program has 30 books on its list; in order to quality for NEA funding, a community must select a book from this group. The list is a scatter chart of classic and popular literature, ranging from Leo Tolstoy to Amy Tan, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Ursula Le Guin. But when Santa Barbara Public Library reference librarian Chris Gallery sat down with her colleagues to choose a book they felt would appeal to young readers, particularly boys, the range of options narrowed considerably. Fahrenheit 451 was the obvious choice for Santa Barbara Reads 2009.
Considering that it was first published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 is a startlingly prophetic account of a future society where huge flat-screen TVs, fast cars, and babbling headphones provide constant stimulus. In just 165 pages, Bradbury conjures a world in which literature and the arts have been discarded in favor of violent entertainment and catchy advertising, a world where human relationships have become shallow, and people are deeply, secretly miserable. It is a world at war, with bomber jets screaming overhead, yet there is no real public discourse-only a charade of politicians elected for their physical attributes. It’s a dark and disturbing vision, and one that resonates with the 21st-century reader more closely than many of literature’s paranoid visions of the future.
The story’s protagonist, 30-year-old Guy Montag, is a fireman: His job is to burn books and the houses where they are discovered. Bradbury captures his hero’s hunger for power, his rushes of adrenaline, in vivid language. What teenage boy could fail to relate to Montag from page one?
With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history : he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black.
Teenage boys may also be excited to discover the new graphic adaptation of the book, due for release next month. In a telephone interview last week, New York graphic artist Tim Hamilton said he tried to remain true to Bradbury’s vision of the future as seen from the vantage point of the 1950s. In order to arrive at the right aesthetic, Hamilton studied art deco design and Russian revolutionary posters, arriving at a dark, shadowy world of figures bathed in blue-green light until fire erupts around them.
While Fahrenheit 451 is a harrowing warning of the dangers of social apathy and government censorship, it’s also a story of hope-of the redemption of humanity that’s found in literature, the storehouse of our deepest wisdom. Ultimately, Bradbury’s novel is a classic tale of self-discovery, a story in which the hero must choose between his values and the pressures of his society-pressures that in this case seem insurmountable. What he discovers, and what one hopes young readers might discover in their reading of it, is that it isn’t books themselves that are meaningful, but the truths to which they point. In the book, it is Faber, a retired professor, who guides Montag to this realization.
Faber examined Montag’s thin, blue-jowled face. “How did you get shaken up? What knocked the torch out of your hands?”
“I don’t know. We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren’t happy. Something’s missing. I looked around. The only thing I positively knew was gone was the books I’d burned in ten or twelve years. So I thought books might help.”
“You’re a hopeless romantic,” said Faber. “It would be funny if it were not serious. It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that were once in books : No no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget.
And yet it’s clear that for Bradbury, the written word represents our humanity, and that without it we are bereft. On the phone from his Los Angeles home last week, an elderly Bradbury defended the value of reading with the kind of vehemence of the grandfather in Fahrenheit 451 who is remembered to have commanded his grandson, “Stuff your eyes with wonder.” When asked why is reading important and valuable today, Bradbury replied, “Reading is the way you educate yourself. You cannot be educated unless you do it yourself. The library should be the center of your life. It’s all free; it doesn’t cost anything. You go to the library and you enrich your life.” His message for young people who say they prefer surfing the Internet or playing computer games? “The Internet is too quick. It doesn’t last. Go sit down and read a book; don’t argue with me.”
For those who work with junior high, high school, or college students, the library is here to help, offering up to 900 free copies of the book for student use, and encouraging teachers to use the book as a starting point for visual art, theater, and writing projects. Come September, there will be public appearances by Bradbury and Hamilton, staged readings, film screenings, and public discussions.
Whether you’re 14 or 84, you’re encouraged to pick up a copy of the book this summer and join the Santa Barbara Reads community discussion of Fahrenheit 451. Go ahead; stuff your eyes with wonder: It’s free, and it’s even legal.
To learn more about Fahrenheit 451, visit neabigread.org, where you’ll find teachers’ and readers’ guides, historical notes, a biography of Bradbury, and more. And check out sbplibrary.org for updates on Santa Barbara Reads 2009 events and ways to get involved. Teachers, please call Chris Gallery at 564-5633.