Ray Bradbury, who changed science fiction into mainstream literature, died on Tuesday at age 91.
Bradbury explored the double-edged sword of science during a post-WWII nuclear age, yet his fiction still illuminates the tensions of technology today. Contrary to popular interpretation, his novel Farenheit 451 intended to celebrate books to warn us against television and mass media. Bradbury’s literary love reminds us of two truths: 1) mass media and “the news” can only tell us so much about how to live and think, and 2) hyperconnectivity and information-technology have ironically made us increasingly alienated, depersonalized, and numb.
Everyone reads Farenheit 451 as a protest against state-sponsored censorship, but Bradbury saw it as an ode to literature and a criticism of mass media. Protagonist Guy Montag, a "fireman" who burns books for the government, lives in a society that never reads, examines nature, has meaningful conversations, or spends time independently. Everyone drives fast cars, watches excess television, and listens to radios plugged into their ears.
Montag realizes that the state represses books because of their intellectual and emotional power. Literature not only portrays the intimate, human details of life, but also represents the civic freedoms required for deep reading, such as leisure and the freedom to think about and act on their ideas. Mass media, says former a English professor in the novel, cannot provide these intellectual and emotional exercises with their “factoids.” Bradbury means to say that literature gives us a way to consider the world in a universal framework beyond its mere facts, which in extreme cases are not reliable.
The society that surrounds Montag shows us that technology threatens our humanity. His friend Clarisse, one of the few who challenges society, is killed by a speeding car; a machine tries to anesthetize Montag. These incidents are not even shocking in the novel, even taken for granted. Bradbury asks us to question blinding optimism about technology and to remember their negative consequences.
Indeed, the book warns us that mass media makes us intellectually lazy and emotionally numb. Montag’s wife talks only about frivolous things and cannot understand why anyone would read instead of watch TV. Beatty, his boss, points to the complex, often contradictory nature of literature as reason why books should be burned.
Bradbury’s death gives us a moment to reflect on his artistic contributions. He not only asked us to question society; he also brought science fiction into the mainstream by replacing scientific jargon with poetic, metaphoric language. Through his literary revolution, we can understand universal themes such as uncertainty about the future and science’s relationship with society. While Bradbury didn't write Farenheit 451 while Twitter and Facebook existed, it reminds our hyperconnected, information-obsessed world to unplug and reconsider our lives once in a while -- and that may just be picking up a book.