Book 9: Fahrenheit 451

I’ve written about Bradbury before. When I have to name an author that has influenced my writing, he’s always the first that comes to mind, but until this year, I had never read his first novel and most famous work, Fahrenheit 451.

There are a couple things I know about this book. Bradbury got the title by calling a fire station, asking whoever picked up at what temperature paper burns, and then switched “451 Fahrenheit” to “Fahrenheit 451” because it sounded better. Which is exactly the kind of high quality research you expect in your science fiction novels.

The second thing I know is that Bradbury wrote the entire book in the UCLA library, where he could rent a typewriter for half an hour at a time, at ten cents a pop. It cost him nine dollars and eighty cents in dimes to write the first draft. People like to romanticize the wealth and freedom that comes with a successful writing career, especially with today’s constant news of runaway indie bestsellers, but Bradbury is a good example of the persistence, sacrifice, and self-delusion it takes to make it as a writer. Maybe he could have written it at home. Instead, he chose the unglamorous library basement and wandered the stacks between sessions, letting the feel of the books soak into him.

There’s a distinct feeling of loss that walking into a library gives you. Every book is a reminder that you’ll never come close to reading every book in the world. There’s still something comforting about walking through the stacks and letting your fingers run over the information and thoughts that people have seen fit to record with paper and ink.

I’m adamantly in favor of ebooks and the accessibility that Amazon’s online bookstore has created. But even I can acknowledge that there’s something about objects that is important to preserve. I’m not going to cite the way books smell, and I’m too impatient with nostalgia to tell you a nice story about the first time I got my own library card. But there’s history in books. Marks on a page that only have meaning because they say we do have the power to draw out powerful and real emotions in people. The pages of a physical book carry the weight of everyone who read it before you. It’s a kind of magic that should be something logic can capture and explain. It never does.

In my copy of Fahrenheit 451, the 50th anniversary edition, there’s a coda at the end, in which Bradbury explains a request he once got to rewrite The Martian Chronicles with more female characters. He’d gotten the same request for the black characters a few years earlier. He goes on to describe an anthology of 400 short stories by classic authors:

“How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book? Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy… Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepenciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like – in the finale – Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention – shot dead. Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture?

“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”

I’m the first to admit that a lot in books is offensive, particularly to women, particularly in science fiction. One of the reasons I’ve been slow on these blogs is that I have disliked several of the books I’ve read this year, and it’s unsettling to me. I set up this challenge in order to learn about the history of the genre I write in. I knew what I was getting into when I chose the books on this list. But far and away, the most disappointing thing has been the books that people recommended – “Wait until you get to that one, it’s soooooo good!” – without mentioning the offensive way that women are treated and portrayed in these stories. You’d think it would warrant at least a brief warning – “The science and story in that one are so good, but the female characters… you know how science fiction can be.”

And yet… to attempt to rewrite those books is to burn them, to destroy those moments in history. It wouldn’t destroy the offense they caused; it would only give us no one to blame. Literature is the language of society, as speech is the language of man. I think that, in a way, preserving these moments honors the people that they offend. The fact that they offend us now means that we’re moving on. It validates the fact that people have suffered in the past, that they are not exaggerating past wrongs. I think Bradbury has it right, when he talks about censorship here. He declares later on in the coda that he isn’t going to change the way he writes for anyone, and given the time period he grew up in, I think that’s fair. He’s not saying those previous writings are justifiable; he’s saying that he did the best he could, and the result shares the same ignorance as the world he grew up in. And everyone who reads his stuff today and takes offense is more than justified in their response. But thank goodness, that some people are now noticing these offenses, instead of accepting them as the unspoken norms of our society.

I have one more random fact about Bradbury. When he started out, he wrote a short story a week and always submitted them to the New Yorker. Who knows how many rejection slips he piled up. They didn’t want him in New York. They barely wanted him in the science fiction community.

But next time New York publishers complain about the rise of ebooks, pay attention to their argument. They’ll often start to list authors whose works they have distributed to the world, and they’ll often list Bradbury as one of them. As if they discovered him. As if he didn’t fight for years to receive recognition for his writing. As if we read Bradbury today because of commercial publishing, instead of in spite of it.

There is more than one way to burn a book.

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