Welcome to 2014! Here is my attempt to start posting here regularly again, now that I’m not riddled with disease and trying to find a new job anymore. I actually wrote this a while ago, but never posted it because of cowardice, so I thought I’d kick the new year off with it. Here is my essay on why Ray Bradbury was a dick.
My Adorably Nerdy Coworker and I had a conversation a while ago that went like this:
Sam: Did you hear that Ray Bradbury died?
Coworker: This is embarrassing: I didn’t know he was still alive.
Sam: Equally embarrassing: I don’t think I’ve read anything by him other than Fahrenheit 451. I’m not sure I could even name anything else he wrote. What else did he write?
Coworker: Wow, are you asking the wrong person about that era of science fiction.
But it got me to thinking that someone should really do “All of Ray Bradbury’s Books In Summary” because hell if I know what he wrote and some of it might look interesting enough to get from the library. And also it would be funny because one of the few passages from Fahrenheit 451 that I’ve actually retained after fifteen years had a few things to say about summaries:
Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books levelled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me? Books cut shorter. Condensations, Digests. Tabloids. Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: ‘now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbours.’ Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.
More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three dimensional sex magazines, of course.
This quote scared the hell out of me as a teenager, because I knew what Reader’s Digest was getting up to with their condensed great books. But in order to find that quote, I had to go googling for the ebook, which led me to an article that reminded me why I think Ray Bradbury was a dick.
Because, see, the reason I didn’t read more Ray Bradbury as a young man is that I read his foreword to some book or other when I was seventeen and thought to myself, this guy is a dick. I don’t need to read his bullshit. (Also, I may have liked the idea of Fahrenheit 451 but when I was whipped through it in high school I found the prose nigh-unreadable.)
When he died, I didn’t want to come right out and say Ray Bradbury was a dick because
a) he’d just died and
b) I couldn’t remember why I thought he was a dick.
I’m pretty sure it had something to do with some misogyny on his part, though that was par for the course with the old farts of the Golden Age. I get that it’s a shady thing to speak ill of the dead, if not through superstition or out of respect then because they can’t fight back and it’s hardly fair. But the end of a life of someone so influential to society is a time to study their impact and consider their contributions. Besides, Ray Bradbury is required high school reading; he had his go. So I’m going to get comfortable in my opinions:
Ray Bradbury wrote a seminal piece of English literature that stands with works like 1984 and Brave New World as a staggering social cautionary tale. Also, it’s almost unreadable as a prose piece, and its author was a dick.
This is what he said in the above-linked article:
“I was approached three times during the last year by internet companies wanting to put my books on an electronic reading device,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “I said to Yahoo: ‘Prick up your ears and go to hell.'”
He also complained about the spread of modern technology.
“We have too many cellphones. We’ve got too many internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now,” he said.
Mind you, I think Yahoo should go to hell too, but only because they’re Yahoo, not because they want to make ebooks. Also, as an aside, “We’ve got too many internets” needs to be a meme like yesterday.
But to get to the point, I can only assume he didn’t understand how e-readers work. They are the very definition of “mass dissemination of literature”, and he said they “smell like burned fuel”.
In Fahrenheit 451, so the internet tells me, Bradbury is not talking about the dangers of censorship as much as he is about the dangers of technology-based media like television and film; these are the supposedly simple, thoughtless pleasures that people give up intellectual challenge in order to enjoy. He clearly dislikes technology in general (viz the admittedly terrifying robot firehouse dog in the book). So I get that: books are virtuous and gadgets are evil, and let’s just not discuss Gutenberg’s little gadget and what it did for books.
That’s not 100% fair. In some sense I agree with him; I do not think American Idol has much material contribution to make to our culture.
But this technology that he thought in 1953 would damn our souls has turned out to be a mode of salvation. That makes me sound like a bad guy from the book, but I’m dead serious. Do you know how hard it is to kill an idea once it reaches the internet? You would need to kill the entire internet and even if you did that, some person somewhere has saved it to their hard drive in a file marked “LOL”.
You can smuggle a thousand books anywhere in the world on a piece of plastic and metal the size of your palm. You can print yourself a book from these files in the course of an hour or two. Digital books seem to encourage people to read, though I don’t have the precise numbers for that in front of me. Certainly I see more ereaders on the train today than I saw books on the train five years ago. And Ray Bradbury only allowed Fahrenheit 451 to be turned into an unkillable unburnable digital book because he couldn’t renew his publishing contract without it.
I was thinking all this as I skimmed the ebook, looking for the lines I quoted above, when I found that passage and realized I didn’t remember it the way it was written. What you read above is the version that I recalled, composed of bits and pieces scattered across a couple of pages. And here’s some bits and pieces also scattered across those same few pages that I’d forgotten about, if I ever understood them to begin with:
Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did.
Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won’t stomach them for a minute.
You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Coloured people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Bum the book. Serenity, Montag.
Ray Bradbury wasn’t the first white guy to say that the shaming of prejudice is the agency of censorship, or to misinterpret the goals of those striving for equality as an attempt at universal homogeneity. He definitely wasn’t the last, ’cause I’m pretty sure I saw someone say it yesterday on the internet. This particular concept isn’t even the main theme of the book. But it is there, in a fairly important moment. In high school I was assigned to read this book that seemed to say we must fight society to preserve intellectual freedom but actually said that if you were unhappy with the way dominant culture told you to be, you were the problem. You were the reason standards were “lowered” and books were burned.
Yes, Ray Bradbury did good things. He supported libraries and required, as part of his ebook contract, that Fahrenheit 451 must be downloadable by any library patron for free. He wrote a defining dystopic novel that has influenced generations of readers to revile censorship, resist simplicity, and protect the written word. (Or should I say the printed word?)
He was probably a super-nice guy in person and his books have challenged and entertained millions.
But his definition of censorship was grossly inaccurate, his dislike of technology was deeply irrational, and there comes a point where you can’t just say he was a product of his age and let him get away with it.
What a dick.