Monday, September 14, 2009

Book Burning

So I finished reading Fahrenheit 451 just in time for the world to be up in arms over Kanye West's well-publicized douchery at the 2009 VMA awards. I did not see the event as it happened, but I did bear witness to the outcry on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube (I refuse to link to the millions of angry vloggers voicing their deep disapproval of Kanye's actions, but they aren't difficult to find if you're into that sorta thing).

The incident provided a wonderful segue from Ray Bradbury's frightening fiction into our terrifying reality, where indeed the televised behavior of our celebrity "family" warrants more of our discussion and concentration than world political affairs, wars, or the moral crises of the day. Watching the internet reaction to Kanye was sort of like reading Bradbury in 3-D. As Choire Sicha put it on The Daily Beast:
What a disaster! One tiny element of chaos and MTV fell apart—and so did America. One millionaire was mildly mean to another millionaire.
Which reminds me of the passage in which Bradbury's protagonist Montag asks his wife to explain her television program to him:
What was it all about? Mildred couldn't say. Who was mad at whom? Mildred didn't quite know. What were they going to do? Well, said Mildred, wait around and see. (pg.45)
Most people can probably tell you that Fahrenheit 451 is about censorship or burning books. I've never gotten around to reading it until now, but I could have told you that. However, Bradbury used book burning as a metaphor for a much greater menace leeching on human civilization: our desire to be constantly distracted and entertained.

Bradbury wrote of a world where people "are so confident that they will run on forever. But they won't run on. They don't know that this is all one huge blazing meteor that makes a pretty fire in space, but that someday it'll have to hit. They see only the blaze, the pretty fire . . ." (pg.103)

This is our world today! We see only what we want to see, what we can get in 140 characters or a two minute clip on Youtube, and I'm as guilty of this as anyone. I can't count how many times I dog-eared a page of Fahrenheit just to quickly check my Twitter feed or email.

As Bradbury once said, "There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches." Burning books means choosing distraction over focus on the things that matter. It means choosing not to steep yourself in the knowledge of important issues and instead absorb the soundbites and rumors of the latest shallow novelty. We're all book burners from time to time, when it comes down to it. Here's to hoping we can all burn a little less.

1 comment:

  1. People were saying the same thing about cell phones 10 years ago (and some luddite shut-ins probably still are) but after a while, people began to realize that occasionally being near an idiot squawking on a dialer is a small price to pay for being able to instantly connect to anyone in the world, including emergency services and the ones we love.

    The same rule applies for web 2.0 utilities; the trivial technology that enables people to comment on Kayne's ODB moment also allows Iranian protestors to communicate to the outside world when the Basij starts kicking the shit out of them.
    Meanwhile, from where I'm sitting I can access photos by Mapplethorpe, stories by Donald Barthleme, and a never-before released film by Moctezuma literally within seconds, then afterward find out who the hell are those guys are. Heck, to see a dance number choreographed by Bob Fosse, all I have to do is just have to watch Beyonce shake her amazing ass on the VMAs.

    It is the distraction (even Kanye...especially Kanye) that make us more connected to each other - and the culture around us - than ever before.
    And just imagine what a shitty, boring world it would be like without them.