Even those of us who’ve never read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 know it as a searing indictment of government censorship. Or at least we think we know it, and besides, what else could the story of a dystopian future where America has outlawed books whose main character burns the few remaining, secreted-away volumes to earn his living be about? It turns out that Bradbury himself had other ideas about the meaning of his best-known novel, and in the last years of his life he tried publicly to correct the prevailing interpretation — and to his mind, the incorrect one.
“Fahrenheit 451 is not, he says firmly, a story about government censorship,” wrote the Los Angeles Weekly‘s Amy E. Boyle Johnson in 2007. “Nor was it a response to Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose investigations had already instilled fear and stifled the creativity of thousands.” Rather, he meant his 1953 novel as “a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature.” It’s about, as he puts it above, people “being turned into morons by TV.” Johnson quotes Bradbury describing television as a medium that “gives you the dates of Napoleon, but not who he was,” spreading “factoids” instead of knowledge. “They stuff you with so much useless information, you feel full.”
He didn’t much like radio either: just two years before Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury wrote to his sci-fi colleague Richard Matheson bemoaning its contribution to “our growing lack of attention,” and its creation of a “hopscotching existence” that “makes it almost impossible for people, myself included, to sit down and get into a novel again.” For the abandonment of reading he saw in society, and from which he extrapolated in his book, he blamed not the state but the people, an entertaiment-as-opiate-addicted “democratic society whose diverse population turns against books: Whites reject Uncle Tom’s Cabin and blacks disapprove of Little Black Sambo,” leading to widespread censorship and eventually the burning of all reading material.
But books still do face challenges (and the FBI even had its eye on Bradbury and his genre), challenges only an intelligent, non-numbed public can beat back. “I get letters from teachers all the time saying my books have been banned temporarily,” says Bradbury in the clip above. “I say, don’t worry about it, put ’em back on the shelves. You keep putting them back and they keep taking them off, and you finally win.” The authors, even Bradbury, can’t help, but he would always tell these literarily-minded people who wrote to him in distress the same thing: “You do the job. You’re the librarian. You’re the teacher. Stand firm and you’ll win. And they always do.”
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.