Read a book and discover the world
A few observations as I help celebrate Nevada County Reads! this month by reading and rereading Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”
For starters, county schools chief Terry McAteer gets an A for his book selection. My initial thought was that he should have picked a more traditional classic; maybe “Huck Finn,” or “Moby Dick,” or even “Cat In The Hat.” The point of the program, I think, is to get nonreaders to read, and a Bradbury book is not really starter material. Even the most avid reader tends to finish a Bradbury sentence, only to return to the starting line again and again to make sure the dog is really a robot.
But two chapters in and you suddenly realize the brilliance of it. “Fahrenheit 451” is absolutely the perfect book at the perfect time. It’s a look in the mirror that Bradbury envisioned for us more than 50 years ago. Around the same time that another visionary, Walt Disney, built a monorail around a theme park. He probably thought we’d be commuting by elevated monorail today, much like in the 1966 film adaptation of “Fahrenheit 451” with Julie Christie, leaving the ground to bicycles and flowers and trees and such. Instead, we still fret and sweat and haggle and hedge over a simple traffic signal at the intersection of Idaho-Maryland and East Main. Somewhere along the line, we missed the boat Walt sent for us.
Bradbury envisioned a time when books have been replaced by giant-sized flat-screen televisions (sound familiar?). And firemen don’t put fires out; they start them when they discover a house with books inside. The only difference today is we don’t need firefighters to burn our books because many of us don’t read them anyway. Not books. Not magazines. Not newspapers. Everything we need to know we get from Reality TV. Why watch C-SPAN when we can watch “American Idol” and “The Osbournes”? Who needs The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or the L.A. Times when we’ve got CNN and Fox News to give us a 30-second “unbiased” snapshot, courtesy of the blonde and wavy-headed mouthpieces with earplugs who work on 13-week contracts and are replaced when ratings fall one tenth of one percent?
And that’s exactly what the government wants. A dumb nation is a happy nation.
“Ignore those bombers flying overhead … there’s war going on and the boys will be home any day now … trust us … just sit back and relax … surf the Net … e-mail a friend … shop the malls … look … over there … isn’t that Brad Pitt with some other woman?”
Or … in the words of Bradbury … “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.”
Reminds me of the guy who wants me fired because he doesn’t like what I write. His side is the best and the only side and all other sides are “mean” and “divisive” and … and … should be toned down or eliminated right this instant or I’ll simply beat him to death with letters from my laptop inside the coffee shop that refuses to advertise because he agrees with my side!
“So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your daredevils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the theremin, loudly. I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don’t care. I just like entertainment.”
That Bradbury can flat string words, can’t he? The kind of words you want to read again because they just seem to flow, right from the very first sentence. “It was a pleasure to burn,” begins “Fahrenheit 451.” And that, we learn, is the temperature at which paper burns.
Fortunately, our leading man Montag the fireman figures out that books are nothing to be afraid of, and he starts reading them one by one.
This book, I hope, is also a reminder to parents. Although television was still in its infancy when he wrote “Fahrenheit 451,” Bradbury foresaw its downside. There’s one chapter when some women are sitting in Montag’s parlor discussing child raising. “I plunk the children in school nine days out of 10,” says one. “I put up with them when they come home three days a month; it’s not bad at all. You heave them into the parlor and turn the switch. It’s like washing clothes: stuff the laundry in and slam the lid.”
A television makes a wonderful baby sitter, doesn’t it?
The last study I saw indicated that our children spend almost half of their waking hours in front of the tube.
We can change that. Nevada County Reads! is a wonderful way to start. I encourage each of you to read this book. Read it to yourself. Read it to a friend. Read it with a friend. And … read it with your children. Our libraries are just waiting for our children to turn off the television, Gameboys and X-Boxes and discover a world of mystery and adventure and knowledge and poetry and millions and millions of beautifully written words.
Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears each Tuesday.
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