Lessons from Fahrenheit 451


Image from amazon.com

Image from amazon.com

It is no piece of cake being a college student…or much of anything…in today’s world. Lately, I’ve been feeling burned out, beaten down, and altogether hopeless – and a lot of people I’ve talked with lately are feeling the same way. This is a point in my life when I want to learn all that I can learn, and lately I’ve been feeling like I’m stuck in neutral. I read and write and speak and listen all the time for my classes, but I wonder how much I am really learning. It seems that I remember enough just to pass the next test or pad the next paper, but none of it really stays with me to help me grow.

On my way to classes on Wednesday. I was feeling particularly distraught about everything that was happening in my little world, as well as the larger world. As I was driving, I was listening to talk show host Glenn Beck on my car radio, and I experienced one of those moments when it seemed like everything that he was saying he was saying directly to me. I needed to hear every word he was saying, and his words have reassured me and reenergized me ever since. It just so happened that Beck was reading from one of my all-time favorite books, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, when I tuned in. If you haven’t read it, you need to read it…now…especially now!

Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of a fireman—a man whose profession is to start fires—by the name of Guy Montag in a dystopian future America. In Bradbury’s vision of the future, books are banned as a method of controlling the population. Hedonism is encouraged and critical thought is forbidden, all in an effort to keep the people happy. Sound familiar? In the beginning, the censorship came not from on high but from various minority groups who took offense at anything, and from those who bent over backward to accommodate them. Again, sound familiar? The book is perhaps more timely today than it has been since it was originally published in short form in 1950, as accusations of sexism, racism, xenophobia, and other bigotries have come to dominate the modern socio-political debate, even as media proliferates and dominates our lives ever more.

Below are some selected passages from the book I found to be most intriguing.

On Education: “Why aren’t you in school? I see you every day wandering around, ” he inquired. “Oh, they don’t miss me,” she said. “I’m antisocial, they say.  I don’t mix. It’s so strange. I’m very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn’t it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this….Or talking about how strange the world is. Being with people is nice. But I don’t think it’s social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you? An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running, another hour of transcription history or painting pictures, and more sports, but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don’t; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing, and us sitting there for four more hours of film teacher. That’s not social to me at all. It’s a lot of funnels and a lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom, and them telling us it’s wine and it’s not. They run us so ragged by the end of the day we can’t do anything but go to bed or head for a Fun Park to bully people around, break windowpanes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with the big steel ball. Or go out in the cars and race on the streets, trying to see how close you can get to lampposts, playing ‘chicken’ and ‘knock hubcaps.'”

On Youth and Violence: “I guess I’m everything they say I am, all right. I haven’t any friends. That’s supposed to prove I’m abnormal. But everyone I know is either shouting or dancing around like wild or beating up one another. Do you notice how people hurt each other nowadays? I’m afraid of children my own age. They kill each other. Did it always use to be that way? My uncle says no. Six of my friends have been shot in the last year alone. Ten of them died in car wrecks. I’m afraid of them and they don’t like me because I’m afraid. My uncle says his grandfather remembered when children didn’t kill each other. But that was a long time ago when they had things different. They believed in responsibility, my uncle says.”

On Communication and Culture: “Sometimes I sneak around and listen in subways. Or I listen at soda fountains, and do you know what?…People don’t talk about anything….No, not anything. They name a lot of cars or clothes or swimming pools mostly and say how swell! But they all say the same things and nobody says anything different from anyone else. And most of the time in the caves they have the joke boxes on and the same jokes most of the time, or the musical wall lit and all the colored patterns running up and down, but it’s only color and all abstract. And at the museums, have you ever been? All abstract. That’s all there is now. My uncle says it was different once. A long time back sometimes pictures said things or even showed people.

Are these not conversations we would be having today? And all of them were written in 1950. That says a lot about our world, doesn’t it?

One of my favorite parts in the book is this: “But most of all…I like to watch people. Sometimes I ride the subway all day and look at them and listen to them. I just want to figure out who they are and what they want and where they’re going.” I think we can all learn something from this. It reminds me of a photo I recently saw of a majestic view of the Grand Canyon, and in the foreground of the photo was a sign that read, “One minute. Don’t read. Don’t talk. No photos…just look and see.” Be still. Slow down and really see what is in front of you. Slow down and really hear what God is speaking in your soul. Slow down and really think about what is happening around you. We often move so fast that we don’t have time to truly see, hear, or think about anything, particularly the things that really matter. Don’t worry about keeping up with everyone else, and don’t be content with just being like everyone else. You can’t do it all, but you can do something. We live in a severely misguided world, but we move too fast to even recognize this, much less come up with solutions to try to fix it.

Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns. What level of evil will we have to hit before this world catches fire and burns? Does anyone ever think about that? Does anyone care? Towards the latter part of the book, the protagonist says, “I saw the way things were going, a long time back. I said nothing. I’m one of the innocents who could have spoken up and out when no one would listen to the ‘guilty,’ but I did not speak and thus became guilty myself.” Don’t be like him. Speak the truth even if your voice shakes, even if the words come out wrong, even if you think no one is listening. The world needs to hear your voice and see your example now more than ever. Each one can reach one…or hundreds…or millions…when you are on the side of truth.

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