Told With The Smell of Paper and Regret
“Of course, what people often get wrong about Fahrenheit 451 is that it isn’t really about state censorship it all, but a warning about the death of high culture in face of the low.”
He sat back in the chair, looking satisfied.
“You’re joking, right?” I said. “It’s about burning books. Actually, literally, confiscating and burning books.”
“But is it?” There was that grin again. “Or is that just what happens?”
“You have a point then?”
“Of course. See, the theme in the book is that world is sleeping walking to disaster. Don’t forget it ends in a nuclear war that most of the characters seem unaware of being on the horizon. Most people are too busy watching the TV, which is supplanting all their other sources of information and leaving people docile and ill-informed.”
“Well, that’s hardly an original thesis, I guess.”
“The critical thing with the book-burning is that it’s not the actions of an oppressive state, at least in the Orwellian sense. They get away with burning books not because dissent is ruthlessly crushed, but because people let it happen. Because they don’t care.”
“Because they’re watching TV?”
“Because of the TV that they’re watching. The Fireman’s wife, after all, goes into the TV room – with its full-wall screens – and sees the soap opera characters as her family. It’s a comfort blanket, unchallenging and safe. It’s more important to her than anything, her marriage, her life. Why would she worry about them burning books? She doesn’t want to read any. Why would she worry about the war? Current affairs are something she spends no time to seek out.”
“So you’re saying we shouldn’t be worried about the state, we should be worried out each other?”
“Exactly! Look at the world we live in right now – look at all the terrible things that go on around us all the time and people just ignore.” He sat up now, agitated.
“It’s hardly the same!”
“Isn’t it? We have so much choice of content now we are rarely challenged by the content we select to consume. I can’t keep up with everything so I follow what gives me the greatest pleasure. I can read a newspaper that feeds me confirmation on my opinions, watch TV shows that reflect the world as I already see it, buy books that follow my genre conventions of choice. My social media feeds are self-curated to like-minded voices. I can go my whole life without getting my view on anything challenged.”
“You could seek it out. Or is that crazy talk?”
“But I don’t want to – intellectually, perhaps, but not emotionally. Once I’m outside my TV-wall room, the world is cold and strange and full of new troubling things. I’m no longer equipped to deal with it, and that room is always there, just a step away. So I don’t seek out anything new or strange and challenging, and when it impinges on me it’s frightening and makes me angry”
“By ‘you’, I guess you mean ‘everyone else’.” I pointed out. He grinned at me.
“How would I know? Maybe belief in my own intellectual rigor is my self-imposed prison?”
“We’re all the only sane person, right? We all see ourselves as the Fireman?”
“There are worse delusions to have I suppose. He at least walks the journey away from his certainties”.
“So what about us?”
He shrugged. “I guess it depends what’s on the TV tonight.”