Fahrenheit 451 as an e-book – irony or insight?

Ray Bradbury’s 1953 classic Fahrenheit 451 is coming as an e-book. At last. Bradbury himself, reportedly, has opposed the publication until now.

That might seem ironic. Wasn’t the book about the restriction of information – a riff on the book-burning-as-censorship that was such a feature of twentieth century totalitarianism? ‘Don’t think for yourself, think as we tell you to; get with the programme.’

The internet is the inverse of such a mind-set. The hard part, indeed, is working through the avalanche of information pouring out at us. Irony? Bradbury’s problem with e-books, reportedly, is not the freedom of information. It’s the evanescence – the intangibility of electron flows as opposed to the physicality of a book.

Now, when someone like Bradbury takes a stand on a sociological issue, it’s best to listen. What he means – I think – is that the internet and e-age has brought us content transience. We are not merely deluged all the time with e-information, but we expect new material. Every day.

That’s brought home to me by the responses I get to this blog. One older post draws daily interest, still – my First World War lament. But the rest, less so. I guess newspapers are the same – today’s news is tomorrows fish-and-chip wrapping. But online material lasts longer and can be found in ways other than scrabbling through the recycling pile. And yet it doesn’t seem to draw attention any more than old newspapers do. Why?

So are we entering a world of transient superficiality? I’m not talking about the delivery mechanism – internet or print or e-reader or pad or phone. I’m talking about the expectation, our social attention span. As a writer, that’s important to me. And what of the future? Is this a direction, a blip that will settle down – what? Will we have future and lasting classics like The Lord of the Rings? Or are we entering a world of the superficial?

I have a few thoughts on it – but I’d like to know yours too. Discuss!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011


5 thoughts on “Fahrenheit 451 as an e-book – irony or insight?

  1. I believe we can readily chart the increased availability of information through technological means over the previous four decades. Consider the difference in general awareness of people today versus one hundred years ago, especially as it pertains to great distances and knowing about each other. In that sense the world has become a much smaller place.

    Case in point: you’re in New Zealand, I’m in the western United States, and we’re talking.

    The over-saturation of information, and the plenitude of methods for delivering and receiving images and data, has created a glut of information. We are under constant bombardment from signage, audio and video content, print materials and digitized everything – virtually every moment of every day. It’s no wonder that our attention spans seem stretched to capacity, perhaps they are?

    In one of the courses I teach, students reflect on how art both influences (and is influenced by) the ideas and values of a time. In that class we concentrate on the art of the twentieth century in the United States. Like the image in your post, public thinkers of the first half of the twentieth century like Freud and Einstein, became celebrated artistic targets in part because they represented changes in thought and value for mainstream culture. I think it’s possible to see some of the same attitude applied today with the sheer volume of exposure and the vast quantity of material to process. Some things are going to be missed, discarded, let go of, even deliberately jettisoned.

    I do think that like older documents, digital formats will fill online archives and be accessible in the future. One primary difference I see in education is the lack of appeal the library and stacks have for college students. Some of my favorite memories are of burrowing through obscure references and following obscure trails to new sources. Students today seldom approach research in that manner. It’s a bright new world and shiny new methods appeal to them.

    The learning curve is always wide and high until it hits that sharp bend. Then I think the playing field will level out again and we’ll continue to see wonderful new works become classics, some of them shouldering aside our favorites as they reach new generations. Despite the influx of too-much-information, we manage to filter and concentrate on what matters to each of us.

    I don’t suppose that really changes.

    Well, I’ve babbled on enough…what do the rest of you think?

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  2. Hi – I quite agree. Actually, I may not need to write down my thinking on the issue because you’ve pretty much outlined it…:-) Good stuff. Funnily enough, I had an incident recently involving the evolution of online content. I finished a MS and got it away to my publishers last week. This week, a lot of British newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries were published online. I could have used them as sources – a tad late now, the book’s gone into editing and as policy I don’t annoy my publishers by trying to make major revisions post-fact. Sigh.

    Thanks for your thoughts and visit!

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  3. I think Bradbury has been right to worry about the transience of literary artifact. I think physical books, posters, broadsides, pamphlets will always be necessaries are to perennially free themselves from various tyrannies. I say this with an appreciation for the role new media has played in recent revolutions, but a physical object with ideas will always be more subversive than anything digital, because all things digital can be tracked, compromised, deleted.

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