March 13, 2017

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, hinges on an inversion. In the story, “firemen” do not put out fires; they burn books, and sometimes more. They are the enforcers of a policy that defines a world in which first the masses gave up on books and then the government took advantage of the people’s anti-intellectualism to codify the anti-book paradigm. In his characteristically keen introduction, Neil Gaiman calls the book an “If this goes on…” story. In other words, Bradbury saw an accelerating anti-literate trend in the United States in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, and he asked himself what would happen if it continued.

I wonder what Bradbury would write about now if he asked himself another “If this goes on…” question and found another clever inversion to drive the action. Would it be, “If this movement toward increasing wealth inequality and oligarchy continues, will the long trend of expanding American suffrage be reversed?” Maybe in that story “going to the polls” would mean you have to have enough money to get yourself to one of the Earth’s poles to vote.

Would it be, “If the increasing religious fundamentalism around the world continues, will we witness the return of Crusades?” Maybe in that story “miracles” would be nano-bots that literally make people of other beliefs disappear through atomic disintegration.

Or would it be, “If traditional patriarchy continues to try to hold on to its waning power, will women finally rise up and overthrow existing power structures around the world?” Maybe in that story “babies,” “honeys,” and “sweethearts” would, respectively, be the men who are forced to serve as child care workers, beekeepers, and the bakers of customized desserts for the women they serve.

Neil Gaiman writes sensitively in several places about his friendship with Ray Bradbury. Bradbury sounds like a man whose insights we could use today. Alas, we’re not even at a point where the question, “If the development of time travel technology continues at this rate…” makes any sense. So maybe the burden falls on all of us to ask the “If this goes on…” questions—both for the bad trends as well as the good.

I’m embarrassed to say that I had never before read Fahrenheit 451. I’m very glad I finally did. Seeing a world without books depicted is so deeply revolting to me that it redoubles my determination to keep them relevant and contribute some of my own. A few passages in this story feel dated, but far more will amaze you with how prescient a 1950 Ray Bradbury really was. And, without spoiling anything, I can confidently say that you’ll love how the book’s bookless world might not be quite as bookless as it seems.