Reading Fahrenheit 451 sixty years after it was written affords some surprising affirmations of Bradbury’s futuristic vision. Televisions nearly engulf living rooms with 3-D vision and surround sound. Sports occupy center attention. Books are abridged in SparkNotes and WikiNotes. The talking heads of cable news channels prattle incessantly. Video games bombard viewers with a cacophony of colors, characters, and actions. People have earbuds stuffed in flooding them with sound and chatter.
Of all the prescient points of Bradbury’s book, one that stands out most today is the “comfortable people,” the depressed, suicidal people who shun and burn books that make them face excellence, ideas that contradict their positions, and complicated issues. In other words, books that make them face reality and cause their thin cocoon of happiness to disintegrate.
In Fahrenheit 451, liberal arts people are the hope for the future. Hope rests in elders like Faber, the former college English professor; in young people like Clarisse, the teenage girl whose life is filled with late night family discussions and curious exploration of the natural world; and in working people like Montag, who steals away books, searches for a teacher, and joins the band of “Book People.” For when humanity crashes from willful ignorance and the wars it permits to go unchecked, which is what happens in this story, it is liberally educated people who can enter with the riches of human experience and expression to pick up the pieces and build a better life. The ideal institution for the recovery of humanity is the liberal arts college, but, as the reader finds out from Faber, “the last liberal arts college shut for lack of students and patronage” four decades prior.
How sadly ironic that at liberal arts colleges today there are students who mirror the “comfortable people.”
Groups of students with shared ethnic, religious, political, geographic, vocational, or avocational identities—Bradbury calls all such groups “minorities”—demand safe spaces that do not challenge or discomfort their ideas, feelings, or identities. Student groups burn books from syllabi, incinerate speakers from symposia, and torch topics from courses if they “trigger” negative reactions. University personnel who challenge student groups to develop a more mature, rational and civil life are reviled with demands of firing.
Depression and suicide in college students today have also increased. This is not coincidental from Bradbury’s view. “Comfortable people” are unhappy because they have burned the very books and people who can help them reach for a happier life.
If Bradbury’s diagnosis is fair to apply to the situation before us, perhaps his remedy is too. What turned Montag from emptiness toward a happier life? One, a teenage girl who befriended him. Clarisse took time to talk with Montag, ask him questions about his life, and share her wonder about life with him. Two, an old English professor who welcomed the former book burner into his home, guided him through his most trying hours, and offered him three bits of wisdom for a happier life: 1) seeing life in all of its details through good books; 2) taking leisurely time away from technological distractions to digest what we learn; and 3) “the right to carry out actions based on what we learn.” Finally, Montag was welcomed by a group of fellow travelers known as the “Book People.” Each person was responsible for reading and recalling the contents and wisdom of different classic books. Collectively they shared the task of “putting out the fire” after the conflagration of ignorance and war torched humanity.
Young friends, elder teachers, fellow travelers, and books, or, better, wisdom contained in great works. These along with leisurely time and appropriate action are essential to human happiness.
But Fahrenheit 451 cautions that none of this can be forced on “comfortable people” and that it may take a conflagration before they will listen. As Faber warns Montag about their prophetic role as Book People, “we’re not in control, we’re the odd minority crying in the wilderness. When the war’s over, perhaps we can be of some use in the world. . . . you can’t make people listen. They have to come ‘round in their own time, wondering what happened and why the world blew up under them.”
Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 leaves the reader with some pressing questions. Do our young people today mirror Clarisse, Montag, or the “comfortable people”? Do they have friends, teachers, fellow travelers, great works, and time to think and act to make the world a happier place? Does our society revolve around ephemeral entertainment or reciprocal relationships? Are we being led by firemen or by Book People?
Scott Ashmon is Assistant Provost for Undergraduate Education at Concordia University Irvine