Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 Misinterpreted

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Jun 2, 2007, 11:42:52 PM6/2/07

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 Misinterpreted

L.A.’s august Pulitzer honoree says it was never about censorship
Wednesday, May 30, 2007 - 7:00 pm

When the Pulitzer Prizes were handed out in May during a luncheon at
Columbia University, two special citations were given. One went to John
Coltrane (who died in 1967), the fourth time a jazz musician has been
honored. The other went to Ray Bradbury, the first time a writer of
science fiction and fantasy has been honored.

Bradbury, a longtime Los Angeles resident who leads an active civic life
and even drops the Los Angeles Times letters to the editor on his views
of what ails his town, did not attend, telling the Pulitzer board his
doctor did not want him to travel.

But the real reason, he told the L.A. Weekly, had less to do with the
infirmities of age (he turns 87 in August) than with the fact that
recipients only shake hands with Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia University’s
president, and smile for a photograph.

He wanted to give a speech, but no remarks are allowed. “Not even a
paragraph,” he says with disdain.

In his pastel-yellow house in upscale Cheviot Hills, where he has lived
for more than 50 years, Bradbury greeted me in his sitting room. He wore
his now-standard outfit of a blue dress shirt with a white collar and a
jack-o’-lantern tie (Halloween is his favorite day) and white socks.
This ensemble is in keeping with Bradbury’s arrested development. George
Clayton Johnson, who gave us Logan’s Run, says, “Ray has always been 14
going on 15.”

Bradbury still has a lot to say, especially about how people do not
understand his most literary work, Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953. It
is widely taught in junior high and high schools and is for many
students the first time they learn the names Aristotle, Dickens and

Now, Bradbury has decided to make news about the writing of his
iconographic work and what he really meant. Fahrenheit 451 is not, he
says firmly, a story about government censorship. Nor was it a response
to Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose investigations had already instilled
fear and stifled the creativity of thousands.

This, despite the fact that reviews, critiques and essays over the
decades say that is precisely what it is all about. Even Bradbury’s
authorized biographer, Sam Weller, in The Bradbury Chronicles, refers to
Fahrenheit 451 as a book about censorship.

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.

“Television gives you the dates of Napoleon, but not who he was,”
Bradbury says, summarizing TV’s content with a single word that he spits
out as an epithet: “factoids.” He says this while sitting in a room
dominated by a gigantic flat-panel television broadcasting the Fox News
Channel, muted, factoids crawling across the bottom of the screen.

His fear in 1953 that television would kill books has, he says, been
partially confirmed by television’s effect on substance in the news. The
front page of that day’s L.A. Times reported on the weekend box-office
receipts for the third in the Spider-Man series of movies, seeming to
prove his point.

“Useless,” Bradbury says. “They stuff you with so much useless
information, you feel full.” He bristles when others tell him what his
stories mean, and once walked out of a class at UCLA where students
insisted his book was about government censorship. He’s now bucking the
widespread conventional wisdom with a video clip on his Web site
(http://www.raybradbury.com/at_home_clips.html), titled “Bradbury on

As early as 1951, Bradbury presaged his fears about TV, in a letter
about the dangers of radio, written to fantasy and science-fiction
writer Richard Matheson. Bradbury wrote that “Radio has contributed to
our ‘growing lack of attention.’... This sort of hopscotching existence
makes it almost impossible for people, myself included, to sit down and
get into a novel again. We have become a short story reading people, or,
worse than that, a QUICK reading people.”

He says the culprit in Fahrenheit 451 is not the state — it is the
people. Unlike Orwell’s 1984, in which the government uses television
screens to indoctrinate citizens, Bradbury envisioned television as an
opiate. In the book, Bradbury refers to televisions as “walls” and its
actors as “family,” a truth evident to anyone who has heard a recap of
network shows in which a fan refers to the characters by first name, as
if they were relatives or friends.

The book’s story centers on Guy Montag, a California fireman who begins
to question why he burns books for a living. Montag eventually rejects
his authoritarian culture to join a community of individuals who
memorize entire books so they will endure until society once again is
willing to read.

Bradbury imagined a democratic society whose diverse population turns
against books: Whites reject Uncle Tom’s Cabin and blacks disapprove of
Little Black Sambo. He imagined not just political correctness, but a
society so diverse that all groups were “minorities.” He wrote that at
first they condensed the books, stripping out more and more offending
passages until ultimately all that remained were footnotes, which hardly
anyone read. Only after people stopped reading did the state employ
firemen to burn books.

Most Americans did not have televisions when Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit
451, and those who did watched 7-inch screens in black and white.
Interestingly, his book imagined a future of giant color sets — flat
panels that hung on walls like moving paintings. And television was used
to broadcast meaningless drivel to divert attention, and thought, away
from an impending war.

Bradbury’s latest revelations might not sit well in L.A.’s television
industry, where Scott Kaufer, a longtime television writer and producer,
argues, “Television is good for books and has gotten more people to read
them simply by promoting them,” via shows like This Week and Nightline.

Kaufer says he hopes Bradbury “will be good enough in hindsight to see
that instead of killing off literature, [TV] has given it an entire
boost.” He points to the success of fantasy author Stephen King in
television and film, noting that when Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451,
another unfounded fear was also taking hold — that television would
destroy the film industry.

And in fact, Bradbury became famous because his stories were translated
for television, beginning in 1951 for the show Out There. Eventually he
had his own program, The Ray Bradbury Theater, on HBO.

Bradbury spends most of his time now in a small space on the second
floor of his home that contains books and mementos. There is his Emmy
from The Halloween Tree, an Oscar that belonged to a friend who died, a
sculpture of a dinosaur and various Halloween decorations. Bradbury,
before a stroke left him in a wheelchair, typed in the basement, which
is filled with stuffed animals, toys, fireman hats and bottles of
dandelion wine. He referred to these props as “metaphors,” totems he
drew on to spark his imagination and drive away the demons of the blank

Beginning in Arizona when his parents bought him a toy typewriter,
Bradbury has written a short story a week since the 1930s. Now he
dictates his tales over the phone, each weekday between 9 a.m. and noon,
to his daughter Alexandria.

Bradbury has always been a fan, and advocate, of popular culture despite
his criticisms of it. Yet he harbors a distrust of “intellectuals.”
Without defining the term, he says another reason why he rarely leaves
L.A. to travel to New York is “their intellectuals.”

Dana Gioia, a poet who is chairman of the National Endowment for the
Arts, and who wrote a letter in support of granting Bradbury a Pulitzer
honor, compared him to J.D. Salinger, Jack London and Edgar Allan Poe.
Another supporter wrote that Bradbury’s works “have become the sort of
classics that kids read for fun and adults reread for their wisdom and

In June, Gauntlet Press will release Match to Flame, a collection of 20
short stories by Bradbury that led up to Fahrenheit 451. Pointing to his
unpublished proofreading version of the upcoming collection, Bradbury
says that rereading his stories made him cry. “It’s hard to believe I
wrote such stories when I was younger,” he says.

His book still stands as a classic. But one of L.A.’s best-known
residents wants it understood that when he wrote it he was far more
concerned with the dulling effects of TV on people than he was on the
silencing effect of a heavy-handed government. While television has in
fact superseded reading for some, at least we can be grateful that
firemen still put out fires instead of start them.

Atheist n A person to be pitied in that he is
unable to believe things for which there is
no evidence, and who has thus deprived himself of
a convenient means of feeling superior to others.

—Chaz Bufe, The American Heretic’s Dictionary

Michael Gray

Jun 3, 2007, 8:05:49 AM6/3/07
On Sat, 02 Jun 2007 20:42:52 -0700, stoney <sto...@the.net> wrote:
- Refer: <fsd463h2pqpvnla8p...@4ax.com>

I have a B&W copy of an episode of Groucho Marx's "You bet your life",
from the forties or fifties, with a young Ray Bradbury as guest

If I can find it, I'll post it on one of my websites.
It is reasonably fascinating.


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