Ray Bradbury Reveals the True Meaning of Fahrenheit 451: It’s Not About Censorship, But People “Being Turned Into Morons by TV”

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.”

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Father Writes a Great Let­ter About Cen­sor­ship When Son Brings Home Per­mis­sion Slip to Read Ray Bradbury’s Cen­sored Book, Fahren­heit 451

Who Was Afraid of Ray Brad­bury & Sci­ence Fic­tion? The FBI, It Turns Out (1959)

Ray Brad­bury: “I Am Not Afraid of Robots. I Am Afraid of Peo­ple” (1974)

Ray Brad­bury: Lit­er­a­ture is the Safe­ty Valve of Civ­i­liza­tion

Hear Ray Bradbury’s Clas­sic Sci-Fi Sto­ry Fahren­heit 451 as a Radio Dra­ma

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (9) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (9)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Heather L Schoger says:

    The authors of a sto­ry have lit­tle con­trol over inter­pre­ta­tion.
    Teach­ers do.
    I have respect for that, but have my own impres­sions. Some of which the Author or Teacher may dis­agree with.
    there is very lit­tle for me to com­ment on, sides one thing: Did the book make me think?
    Art is Sub­jec­tive.

  • David Cay Johnston says:

    Nice piece, but my third daugh­ter’s last name has a T in it — John­ston. More on Brad­bury can be found in Vol. 1 of her deeply researched Rod Ser­ling biog­ra­phy, Unknown Ser­ling.

  • jk cosmos says:

    The author states that he/she has­n’t read the book; then goes on to inter­pret & com­ment. Well, read the book first ‑and then you’d be in a bet­ter posi­tion to com­ment. Most ridicu­lous arti­cle with lit­tle reli­a­bil­i­ty. 👎🏼

  • Patricia Clements says:

    I don’t think that Collin Mar­shall is say­ing that he has­n’t read the book, but that there are still those who haven’t and peo­ple out there who don’t read; peo­ple who get their talk­ing point news from Fox, etc. with no actu­al news report­ing and debate.

  • Fabio says:

    Truf­faut’s aston­ish­ing­ly beau­ti­ful film makes the point about the numb­ing effect of pas­sive media con­sump­tion even stronger. Dif­fi­cult to say if it is a delib­er­ate choice, or per­haps a nat­ur­al con­se­quence of rep­re­sen­ta­tion through a dif­fer­ent medi­um.

  • Frank Smith says:

    Fun­ny. All the dis­cus­sion about radio and TV. Then at the bot­tom a chance to have the book read to you. Audio book. Inter­est­ing.

  • Marc P. says:

    Like the peo­ple who think 1984 is about a sur­veil­lance state when it’s more about group­think and con­for­mi­ty.

  • Alex says:

    In a 1956 radio interview,Bradbury said that he wrote Fahren­heit 451 because of his con­cerns at the time (dur­ing the McCarthy era) about the threat of book burn­ing in the Unit­ed States.

  • chase says:

    yes I agree

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.