31 January 2011

The permanence of print and the requirement of thought

Matched by Ally Condie (11/10 DTArc):
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (written 1950, enlarged and published as a novel in 1953, my version 2003 with multiple afterwords by the author):

I reread Fahrenheit 451 for a new book club. It must be almost 30 years since I last reread it, with the other classic dystopian novels such as 1984, Clockwork Orange, Animal Farm, Brave New World, Anthem and, of course, 2112. I am amazed at how topical it manages to be, as the latest controversy surrounding the expurgation of Huck Finn sweeps the internets. In exactly this context, Bradbury discusses in an afterword how vehemently opposed he was to allowing one of his characters to be portrayed as a woman rather than a man, that bending to the sensitivities of multiple minorities will allow the destruction, basically, of independent thought (in the novel, this is one of the original groundswells that allowed the beginning of the destruction of literature as a form of coherent and critical thought).
Yet, when I read him saying that, all I could think was that although I had enjoyed reading the novel, although so many of the thoughts and even technological visions are blindingly accurate and still both timely and prophetic, that Bradbury is indeed a child of his time and that he is not able to step beyond that time.
In a specific example, one which struck me as a blow, there is one point when Guy Montag has fled the city and encounters five older men sitting around a fire. (SPOILER)
These men are former professors and thinkers and are now part of a movement where they are the actual embodiments of books: rather than attempting to save the physical structures of information, they have read the books and recite them to retain the knowledge for future generations after the anticipated implosion/conflagration of current society.
The question is: why must these be five men? Would the story be altered in any way if one or even more of these "wise white men" were women or recognizably belonging to other groups? In no way. What would change is the immediate blow that I felt when reading this, as I recognized the subsuming of women into the male as a generality and the erasure of women as a respected part of reality (rather than the women seen in the novel who act as 'types'—as a catalyst or an exemplar of passivity and hopelessness, rather than thinking and reasoning individuals).
In very much the same way, as I read individuals fighting against, saying how horrendous the concept is of, changing the 'N-word' in Huck Finn to slave (and, I believe the derogatory epithet of 'Injun' to another word), I wonder if they belong to that group. I'm one of the minority that sees no problem in having different versions of works: certainly I read enough Little Golden books in my time. Just last week on the BBC I heard that the Malaysian government, after requiring a certain book be taught in school, needed to expurgate a passage because it was inciting racial disharmony.

Well, I have no desire to have my children in grade school, middle school, or perhaps even ordinary level high school "English" class being required to read and to have their classmates read, books that contain vile words that are meant only to hurt them. Below University level, I don't trust the teachers, the system, or the students to adequately deal with that nor do I want my children exposed to the blow after blow of being forced to read or hear read aloud, a word that is like a rock against the body. In the case of Huck Finn, more than 210 times. I can't understand why this is so difficult to understand? The book can still be taught at University level and can be freely purchased (and downloaded— it's in the public domain, after all) where one desires. I think that it would be a good idea to have a foreword or afterword discussing the change that has been made, and why.
I can't even understand this controversy: I have bowdlerized and expurgated versions of both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn sitting on the bookshelf in my childrens' room and that version has been available for 50 years without a ruckus being raised. And my children will read the real versions when they are old enough and mature enough, with guidance and help from me to understand how to deal with the epithets and concepts therein. In the same way that they will slowly grow to understand what the society we live in did and allowed to be done to our people only 60-70 years ago. And I won't be requiring them to read The Merchant of Venice or The Protocols of Zion in grade school, either. I would also very much prefer it that their classmates were not exposed in a casual manner to the beliefs underlying those books, for example, either.

Moving on to look at Fahrenheit 451, there had been discussions in the last decade as to refilming it. One of the issues discussed (and this has been going on for more than 10 years), was
there was difficulty in finding a script that would be appropriate for the film, and that with the advent of computers, the concept of book-burning in a futuristic period may no longer work.
I think that is simplistic and ridiculous, because a book is a permanent understanding, not a physical object that is needed to stand for the idea. Even within this novel, one sees the books— objects that are of themselves illegal— replaced by the mind which holds them. The objects which are currently replacing books, such as e-books and Wikipedia (which you see me citing constantly in my posts) are far more amenable to suppression of thought and dissent than any book might be: they are easily changed and there are no records of the changes. This is seen even now, when I read a lie on Wikipedia and wonder:"How many people believe this to be true? How many people use this as basic research or for basic understanding of a subject and will always believe this falsehood? And what happens if it changes next week— "truth" as understood by many, has become a movable goal. How many lies have I believed?"

Something I find very interesting is that Ray Bradbury has had over 60 years to think about and discuss and change his understanding of what he meant in this novel, but

The novel is frequently interpreted as being critical of state-sponsored censorship, but Bradbury has disputed this interpretation. He said in a 2007 interview that the book explored the effects of television and mass media on the reading of literature:

Bradbury still has a lot to say, especially about how people do not understand his most famous literary work, Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953... Bradbury, a man living in the creative and industrial center of reality TV and one-hour dramas, says it is, in fact, a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature...
Interestingly, before I had seen that I would be reading Bradbury's book, I had grabbed Ally Condie's Matched from my shelf of unread ARCs. This is a YA, aimed at 12+/7th grade and up. The plot is that in an unknown future (SPOILER), individuals are "matched" by Officials in the Society. They are matched with their mates, with their work, and with their place in society. The book is a fascinating mixture of 1984, Fahrenheit 451, A Brave New World and other classics with a similar theme but written for a modern (and younger audience). In particular, there is a scene when the protagonist, Cassia, is being taught to write by a friend who is an Aberration (and thus unmatchable- if he were an Anomaly, he would be destroyed/exiled). She can, of course, read. In fact, she is a talented Sorter and will probably become an Official herself, as he parents and Grandparents were. Her father's work is burning undesirable Artifacts, such as books, poems, and artwork: the Society chose a model 100 of each form and Simplified the remainder away. Writing is never learned because every individual has a reader that travels with them at all times, art is done only in school and is erased after creation while the brushes are chained to the terminals. Print outs of instructions and orders degrade within a week and the only item close enough to be used as "paper" is napkins, which are issued with the centrally generated meals: there are, of course, no pens or other writing materials.

And so on. As I watch the rebellion in Egypt, where the government has "turned off" the majority of the Internet (retaining that which it considers necessary for itself), it makes it clear that one way to control rebellion is to control the ability to disseminate it and that it's difficult to create a rebellion where there is no history or thought to use as a model.

I very much enjoyed this book and I'm going to send a copy to my niece, because I think that she will enjoy it as well.

But of the two, of course Bradbury's is the more thought provoking and interesting, although perhaps dated in language and the baggage of sexist underlying thought. When Clarisse mentions that there are no more porches,because then men might sit and think and speak to each other, when we look at the Walls that send noise and plot-less video with false interactions at the watchers, we see our own society and the result of the fast, relentless and unmoderated by thought, current life we lead and— it makes one think. I hope.

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