Thursday, August 22, 2013

There is more than one way to burn a book

“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” Ray Bradbury

Today is Ray Bradbury’s birthday; he would have been 93 years old this year. I’ve only ever read one of his books, Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and so can’t present myself as any kind of expert or fan of his work. Especially since the book was compulsory reading at school and, like all school work, was met with resistance.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Reluctantly though the book was read, my teacher made sure that the themes were discussed thoroughly so that even those who hadn’t finished the assignment understood them. If I recall correctly, we even watched the movie.

Most people are familiar with Fahrenheit 451, or at least know what it’s about. One of the great themes of the book is controlling people and suppressing individualism. Government submits people to mass media in order to keep them in check, and books with their dangerous ideas are burned. Book pyres become a powerful symbol, a reference to book burnings by Nazis.

Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopia of government oppression, although in a late interview Bradbury noted that “the culprit in Fahrenheit 451 is not the state—it is the people.” It has been seen as a visionary book, too, that predicted inventions like flat-screen TV and ideas such as people becoming alienated by media.

Bradbury wasn’t able to predict one major development. Books have gone through a physical change in the past couple of years, an event that Bradbury was still alive to witness. Books, like all information, have become digitalised. Ideas spread anywhere and everywhere at once. Containing information, let alone suppressing it, has become all but impossible.

Yet book pyres haven’t disappeared. Only this week we were told how British government ordered the Guardian newspaper to destroy computer hard drives, even though they knew perfectly well that the information they contained was stored elsewhere too. It’s the symbol of the act that matters. When government orders books to be burned, they don’t simply burn physical objects or destroy ideas. They demonstrate that they have the power to control ideas.

In Fahrenheit 451, the book burnings themselves become entertainment for the masses. We surround ourselves with a ceaseless entertainment and constant influx of information, just like Bradbury predicted. We are still able to see that the pyres are burning around us, but for how long. If we are the culprits responsible for our own fate, how long will it take before we watch the pyres and not see what they stand for. Will they become only entertainment for us too?