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Jewish World Review
June 18, 2012/ 28 Sivan, 5772
Bradbury's lessons for today
Ray Bradbury, an American author whose books were astounding, who saw into our travails and failings with an insight that could make you shudder, is dead at 91. His works aren't. They live, and one of them, "Fahrenheit 451," will live as long as people bother to visit with uncomfortable truths.
It is a story of a forlorn future in which firemen do not put out fires. They start them. They burn books because books make you ready "to blow up the world" and "destroy authority," cause people to think more than they should and can offend "cat lovers," "Texans" and countless other minorities.
The hero of this short, 1953 novel is Guy Montag, one of the firemen whose first reported adventure is meeting 17-year-old Clarisse, who is really strange. She likes "to smell things and look at things, and sometimes stay up all night, walking, and watch the sun rise." She knew something he didn't. "There's dew on the grass in the morning." She did not like riding in the jet cars because then the grass was just a "green blur." Guy walked away from her in a "kind of clenching and uncomfortable silence."
He gets home to find his wife unconscious from overdosing on sleeping pills. People do this all the time, and after she is revived, she doesn't remember what happened. Her around-the-clock life is watching her "parlor walls," which are wall-sized, three-dimensional, full-color televisions that entertain with such images as clowns chopping off each others' limbs and that suck you up like a "gigantic vacuum."
Our society is clearly not at these extremes, but does any of this summation make you at all edgy about tipping points?
TV, when this book was written, was black and white, small-screened, bad enough, but not the full-color, big screen splash of emptiness we get in today's reality shows.
And in the 1950s, we had not yet heard the term "political correctness." It refers to the fear of offensiveness that was one of the reasons for book burning in the novel. While we do not have book burning, we do have campus speech codes intolerant of candid discussion, and that is truly offensive.
Much worse, of course, are the hate-speech trials abroad.
Clarice was killed by one of those fast cars she did not care for, and today's world is forever smashing wonderment. Thinking about her made me think about Richard Dawkins, the British science writer busily promoting atheism. He recounts in one of his works how he asked his 6-year old daughter the purpose of wildflowers. "To make the world pretty and to help the bees make honey for us," he says she replied before he explained to her that it wasn't so, that they were there to copy their DNA.
It occurred to me that his crusade is not just against religion as such. It is against the brash recognitions of the non-literal, the poetic, of an astonished imagination.
Dawkins has a god, you know. It is science as the final and only answer to everything, and while science is a marvelous avenue to an ever-expanding awareness, it has limits. Life and the universe are larger than science, and there are other ways of knowing.
Guy Montag ultimately turns to books. He finds a famous poem, "Dover Beach," that he reads to others. Without faith, it says, there is "neither joy, nor love nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain."
Words like these awaken him but breed trouble every which way he turns. As a mechanical hound pursues him, he flees to wilderness to read and think with other fugitives. In the end, their city across the river is destroyed in a flash by bombs, and they return to rebuild it.
We today are still free to read books, including those by Bradbury, and we can use them to help rebuild what's been broken.
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Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
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