Fahrenheit 451 and the Various Ways to Burn a Book

More thoughts about Ray Bradbury’s coda to Fahrenheit 451, and the book’s broader definition of censorship

In an essay included in the appendix of my edition of Fahrenheit 451, written as a coda to the 1979 edition of the book, Ray Bradbury says that a college student wrote to him asking if he would consider rewriting The Martian Chronicles to include more women characters. Bradbury responds by calling her an idiot.

All right, to be clear: he doesn’t pull out the word “idiot” until several paragraphs later, after he’s mentioned several other examples of his work being censored or rewritten, and worked up a good supply of anger over the long history of works being bowdlerized to suit one group or another. But it’s still wonderfully exciting to read an author flat-out refusing to make concessions over the integrity of his work in order to appeal to critics.

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

Think of the outrage that would result if he’d written that in 2021! Especially if Bradbury had had the patience for social media! I don’t know enough about him to know how, or even if, his opinions changed over the years, but I like to believe that he’d have a fierce and eloquent take on exactly how social media has escorted western culture contentedly off of a cliff.

But imagine! An established, white, male writer not just rejecting a call for a more inclusive version of one of his works, but actually equating the request with censorship! I can just see the hordes of people using their non-pearl-clutching hands to fight each other off to be the first to dramatically collapse onto the fainting couch!

Maybe I’m not giving the 21st century enough credit. Maybe people would be able to recognize that it’s specious to say that refusing to change a work in the name of diversity is the same as rejecting diversity itself. Maybe there wouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction, but instead an acknowledgement that inclusiveness means expanding, not editing and expurgating. Maybe they’d recognize Bradbury’s coda as a call to action:

But the tip of the nose of my books or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If teachers and grammar-school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own godly manufacture. If the Chicano intellectuals wish to recut my “Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” so it shapes “Zoot,” may the belt unravel and the pants fall.

Which is a forceful (if a bit antiquated) way of saying that the best way to have more inclusive art is to make it, not change it.

But you’ll have to forgive me for being skeptical the reaction would be so enlightened. I’ve just seen dumber versions of this argument being carried out by people less insightful and far less eloquent than Ray Bradbury, across various forums and platforms, for decades now.

And that’s without even entertaining the ludicrous attempts by the American right wing to stir up a culture war, a blatantly desperate move to try and take attention away from the fact that they pushed a fascist idiocracy to the point of a failed insurrection. Any second spent engaging these clowns as they shriek about “cancel culture” is a second wasted.

Or maybe, worse than wasted? I worry that we’ve spent so much time dunking on idiots, shooting at the moronic chaff, that we’ve been neglecting the more insidious threats that have been creeping up on us the whole time. Kind of like boarding up all the doors and windows of the house to keep out the oncoming zombie horde, and then suffocating from an undetected carbon monoxide leak.

For instance: we’ve seen so many complaints about assaults on the First Amendment, whether genuinely confused or disingenuously manipulative, that we’ve developed a kind of shorthand in responding to them. Some traitorous dipshit starts screeching about a publisher not wanting to support his attempts to overturn democracy, calling it “Orwellian” and trying to frame it as an assault on the freedom of speech? We’re quick — and correct! — to point out that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to book publishers, that freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences, and that we’re guaranteed a voice but not guaranteed a platform. (And also that he’s a disgraceful, showboating, moron, which unfortunately is not prohibited by the Constitution or, evidently, the oath of office).

Repeat that enough times, and you reinforce a reductive take on a fundamental issue. People have treated it like a litmus test: instead of “it’s not a First Amendment violation if it doesn’t come from the government,” we’ve conveniently simplified it to “it’s not censorship if it doesn’t come from the government.” Casually de-emphasizing the multitude of other ways to burn a book.

Fahrenheit 451 is deservedly a classic, so I’ve known its premise since at least high school. And I always assumed that I got the gist of it: it’s kind of a companion piece to 1984, right? An oppressive government fearful of the sanctity of the written word, forcibly destroying the free exchange of ideas.

So it was surprising when I actually read the book and saw that the most unsettling descriptions had little to do with actual book-burning. There is a profoundly horrific scene in which a woman refuses to leave her home during a visit from the firemen, but the majority of the book isn’t written like a horror story, but a tragedy. The most eerily prescient and immediately unsettling scenes, to me, all dealt with the miserable lives of Gus and Mildred Montag.

It’s not a life of resistance to oppression, but of unchallenged and un-interrogated complacency. Gus has begun to disassociate, thinking of his hands — which are still doing the things that his conscience or subconscious dictates — as separate from himself. Meanwhile, Mildred spends all of her time either hypnotized by the stories coming from her ever-present in-ear seashells, or with her interactive “family” in a room with three cacophonous TV walls. (And thinking how nice it would be to add a fourth).

Bradbury describes how Mildred feels a closer bond to her on-screen family than her real one, decades before influencers on YouTube started making video thinkpieces warning of the dangers of parasocial relationships. Without having seen Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, he explains how the story has been made interactive, giving her a script to read from, to take part in the family conversation when given her cue. Years before deep fakes, he speculates on a way that the audio and video of the program could be modified to address Mildred by name. And their home —which in a different situation might have become the one featured in There Will Come Soft Rains — hauntingly calls out to her, “Mrs. Montag… Mrs. Montag… Mrs. Montag….”

But instead of treating them like technological breakthroughs, Bradbury — who, based on his friendship with Walt Disney alone, couldn’t be described as someone against technology or against popular entertainment — describes them as abominations. Tools of our own destruction.

These were the parts that hit a little too close to home for me. For one thing, my opinion of my own ever-connected, in-ear seashells changed from “ridiculously ostentatious extravagance” to “essential accessory” alarmingly quickly. More than that, I’ve spent the bulk of my career working in (or over-thinking about) interactive entertainment, which has the ostensible goal of engaging the audience directly with personalized, reactive experiences. Why don’t you just @ me next time, Mr. Bradbury?

I think a key distinction is that the media Bradbury describes in Fahrenheit 451 hasn’t expanded to encompass interactivity, but has simply exploited it. It’s like the difference between a work that’s been designed so that your complicity is a key part of its meaning, and a Captain Zoom record. The interactivity isn’t used to make you wiser, more insightful, more moved, or even more engaged1I think that the popular discussion — and my own — preoccupation with media platforms designed to encourage engagement is actually a little bit misdirected, but that’s a whole separate conversation; it’s simply used to make you more comfortable.

We’ve been living through the consequences of a media landscape designed to tell people only what they want to hear, and show them only what the expect to see. But again, I worry that our preoccupation with the most obviously harmful — news networks spreading misinformation or misrepresented information in order to manipulate the audience politically — can distract us from all the more subtle forms of coercion that are constantly working on us to change how much we’ll tolerate.

For example: all of us who are interested in social change, better and wider representation of traditionally marginalized people, and genuine progress, is justified in dunking on anyone throwing a tantrum about “woke” culture and the acceptable number of non-white people in movies about space wizards or superheroes. But we’re doing progressivism a disservice if we choose to forget or ignore the fact that the loudest blowhards are always a minority of the overall population. It’s more difficult to really consider where the objection is coming from, to wonder why so many people are feeling pushed out by a movement ostensibly about greater inclusion, than to just automatically assume that it’s all motivated by bigotry or manipulation.

I’ve been extremely frustrated by the American media’s bending over backwards to give microphones to the people across the country actively fighting against progress. Much of that is because they keep pressing a story long after it’s been proven false — trying to push a narrative of rural populism and “economic anxiety” even after it’s shown over and over to be good old-fashioned bigotry. Also, it’s almost always one-sided, giving a voice to the people backing racist, xenophobic, transphobic, or homophobic policies, while continuing to treat the targets of these policies as part of a vague, faceless, unknowable community of the invader-activists.

But I have to acknowledge that I’ve often gone too far in the opposite direction. I always assume that there’s an agenda, conscious or otherwise, to reassure and reinforce white, straight, male superiority. Sometimes it is a genuine attempt to examine the roots of a harmful trend. The Daily Show‘s frequent videos dunking on attendees at protests and Republican rallies does nobody a service apart from maybe Viacom; it just continues to give bigots an outsized voice, and it reinforces idea that there are no moderates in the US, just good guys vs bad guys, some of whom are better at hiding it than others.

There is, obviously, a danger in banging too hard on the drums of “Freedom of speech means freedom of ALL speech!” and “The only response to hate speech is more speech against it!” It implies that we as consumers are obliged to maintain a level of objectiveness that should be reserved for the media.

One of the most heartbreaking things I’ve read on Facebook was a post from a former co-worker, asserting that he wanted to break free of the liberal bubble of the San Francisco Bay Area, and make sure that he wasn’t just living in an echo chamber. He proudly declared that he read both The New York Times and Breitbart.

I mean, garbage is garbage. Being open to challenging ideas does not mean we need to put harmful or even stupid ideas on the same level as ones we simply disagree with. I should make clear that I’m not claiming to speak for Ray Bradbury, and I’m not even making a claim that my opinion is supported by anything in Bradbury’s writing. But personally, I’ve got zero problem with boycotts — whether personal or organized — or attempts to de-platform hateful or destructive voices. And I sure as hell have no problem with refusing to give bad actors my own financial support.

I find it profoundly annoying to see Ender’s Game and Chinatown still promoted as essential classics by “problematic” creators, when there are so many works of popular science fiction or neo-noir mysteries that weren’t made by virulent homophobes or rapists. I find it embarrassing and offensive that I’ve seen Ender’s Game praised and adapted so often that I know its premise and can recognize references to it without ever having read it, while it was only a few months ago that I’d even heard of Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

Embarrassing because I can only blame “the gatekeepers” so much. Ultimately, I’m solely responsible for what I choose to take in or refuse to take in. Personal responsibility is key to both sides of that: my disgust with Orson Scott Card isn’t really “censorship,” since I’m only saying that his work doesn’t deserve such amplification to such a wide audience, not saying that this work shouldn’t exist. But it does require me to be thoughtful about that choice, to keep in mind that I do have a line of tolerance that has to be crossed before I reject something outright. I’ve got to be vigilant about keeping that line at “unacceptable,” and not just “uncomfortable.”

That idea of personal responsibility is key to my interpretation of Fahrenheit 451. The thing that surprised me the most about the book is that Bradbury seemed to refuse to blame outside oppressors for the dystopia he was writing about. The firemen were both the symbols and agents of censorship, but they were appointed by the people. The people did this to themselves.