I was watching the Sundance Channel this morning and saw for the first time the 1967 film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I had never seen it before. Directed by Francois Truffaut, this little unpretentious movie cleverly depicts a society devoid of reading material. They have newspapers, but they are comics without words, merely pictures or images, much like the television in each family’s living room.
I was struck instantly by the similarities to 21st century living that this movie managed to get right in 1967: flat screen tv’s broadcasting “self-improvement” infomercials all day long, appliances for every need in the kitchen, convenient mood enhancing drugs for every situation, etc. Of course, there is no equivalent to the Internet even remotely implied in the film, and probably not in Bradbury’s novel either, since computers were something no lay person would ever be able to lay their hands on in that time. However, I was also struck by the theme; books are outlawed because, as one man who ritually sets books on fire for a living put it, “Reading books just makes people dissatisfied with their lives.”
Despite the similarities and differences to our society, the movie evoked certain thoughts in my own mind while I was watching it. For some strange reason I thought of the many ways today that our society tries to keep people ignorant, through church, through meaningless jobs, through mind altering drugs for every need. Ignorance and drug-induced serenity means compliant people after all. Books represent the ability to learn for oneself and by implication, the ability to INTERPRET for oneself. No one in our culture, except religious fundamentalists, would dare claim that they do not want people to read or that we should be burning books, but there is still much vociferous objection if people dare to interpret what they read for themselves. There is a war going on, and the battle is over words; who has the first and last ones, who has the right to speak, who has the right to write or read.
Why is there so much fear, on the part of our government and our social institutions, that people will actually be able to educate themselves? Governments are always saying how dumb the general population is, yet they use every means in their power to keep us that way, by regulating what we eat, wear, listen to, or see on TV. They manipulate homes into buying electronics they don’t need, fashion and other magazines that perpetuate stereotypes and objectify human beings into sexual toys. Unwittingly, extreme liberal leftists are helping this nanny government by telling us what we can and cannot do with our bad habits, our personal preferences in sex, our lifestyles. The general population is misguided, they say. We, and only we, are educated enough to tell them what they need to know. Academics are as bad as the conservatives they want to rout. It never ends. Those on the extreme right and left are squeezing the soul out of the generally moderate middle, all in the name of what THEY think is best for the rest of us.
I realized that all institutions of fear and control should be mistrusted: government, religion, the health industry, education, etc. The only solution is to educate ourselves with as much material as we can get our hands on. This is why the Internet is a good step in that direction, but, as this movie reminds us, there is nothing, NOTHING, like a good work of fiction, philosophy, history, or biography in an actually printed book to fill in the gaps that the Internet naturally leaves unfilled. Not everything we see on the Internet is true, but reading enough of it, and by reading books again, will they begin to show us patterns of historical truth that even the most previously ignorant can learn to pick up for themselves, that even the most jaded can see is a pattern that we need to correct.
I am never one to advocate eliminating television because like anything else there is good and bad television. In fact, I received much of my prodigious education through watching television. What we must be is more discriminating and do everything in our power to resist those who would tell us what to watch, what to read, who or what to believe, or how or if to worship. Suspicion and skepticism are always very good mindsets to cultivate.