Sunday, September 25, 2011

My brain is full

Sometimes you read something, and it causes a sort of paradigm shift in your brain. An avalanche of sorts, wherein your comfortable life is suddenly thrown into chaos, where the way you are used to thinking and acting is suddenly in question. It seems silly, I suppose, to those who have never had such an experience. How could one book/story/article have such an impact? How could something so small be so significant? Now, to those who are not fans of reading, I will warn you, you may not enjoy what follows. I have no idea how lengthy my thoughts may become, and I begin writing this knowing full well that I may lose every last one of you by the end. After all, we are all far too busy to take time to read such ramblings and rubbish. There are far too many other important things to be doing. But I begin writing anyway, with this paragraph as my disclaimer, because I feel the thoughts bouncing about in my brain are too important not to piece together in some way. This may be the epitome of the title of this blog, full of random ramblings, or it may become the least random and, in my wildest dreams, most thought-provoking entry of all.

This morning, I woke up without the help of an alarm clock, because I forgot to set it last night before collapsing into bed. It was too late to get to church, too early to get up and be productive, so I burrowed under my covers with a book bought in a moment of childhood nostalgia. A book I had read when I was younger, and apparently loved, though I had since forgotten many of the details. Rereading it, I wonder how much the girl I was really understood of what she was reading. The ramifications of such a book, written so long again, yet so salient in today’s culture. I read it straight through, along with the notes from and interview with the author, and then just sat, thinking, rolling everything around in my head, trying to make sense of my own thoughts. I have since made it to the living room, but I dare not turn on the TV for fear that the spell will be broken.

The book was Fahrenheit 451, written by Ray Bradbury.

If you have not read this book, I strongly suggest you do so. It was written 50 years ago, so it may not flow in the same way as books of today might, but it is only just over 150 pages, fairly short for a novel, and has plenty of breaks and stopping places, though once the action starts it is difficult to put down. This entry will be a major spoiler, but hopefully will add to the desire to read the book instead of detracting from it. In fact, I plan to put many quotes in that I found fascinating, though I will surely miss many of them, since I, unlike my dad, do not read with a highlighter and sticky tabs next to me. For this book, I wish I had. But I’m getting ahead of myself. For those who have not read it, I will start with a general synopsis and a snapshot of the world of Fahrenheit 451.

The book is set in the future, though exactly when is never revealed, which I think lends to an underlying message of the book: it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. In this future world, cars travel at speeds hovering around or exceeding 100 mph, even in the city. Billboards have been stretched to be readable at such speeds. Houses are equipped with television walls, with which viewers can interact and become part of the fictional world. Gone are front porches, where people might sit and talk and discuss ideas, or sit and get lost in their own thoughts. Houses have been made completely fireproof. And reading has become an offense punishable at the very least by jail time. Firemen are now in the business of setting fires, rather than putting them out. Friends and neighbors become spies and report any suspicious behavior. Murder and death have become almost negligible aspects of society, with no time spent on remembering or mourning. Bodies are incinerated immediately, their memories gone as quickly as the smoke from the fires where they are turned to ash. Marriages are simply a matter of convenience rather than connection, two strangers living in the same house, going about their separate lives with little interaction, and if a divorce or a death occurs, they simply move on to the next placeholder.

The main character of the story is a Fireman named Guy Montag. He is about 30 years old and has been a Fireman for over 10 years. At the beginning of the story, it seems he has never questioned his vocation, but quickly the reader realizes that he has never been quite happy, though he may not even realize it. He has simply always done what was expected, and never questioned, because to question is to arouse suspicion, to stand out from the crowd as an “odd duck.” Coming home from work one day, Montag meets a neighbor, a 16 (almost 17) year old girl named Clarisse, and she turns his world upside down. She is the proverbial straw the breaks the camel’s back, and all of Montag’s hidden feelings, desires, thoughts break free from the dam of propriety he and society have so carefully constructed. Though Clarisse exists in the book for just a few short pages and conversations, the impact she has on Montag shapes the rest of the story. Montag starts to realize he is not happy, and begins to see the things that society does not wish people to notice. The sense of disconnection in an overly connected world begins to grate on him, and he becomes angry when his attempt to breach that disconnection with his wife is a miserable failure.

Through foreshadowing, the reader realized that there is more to Montag than was originally presented, and we find out that he has his own stash of hidden books, though he has been too wary to actually read them. An attempt to bring his wife into his confidence ends in her betrayal, and Montag’s flight into the unknown. He picks up another confidante along the way, a retired English professor by the name of Faber, and in Faber Montag finds that slight hope that he is not alone, and that there might be others of similar thought, though many, like Faber, are too frightened to do much about it, with good reason.

That will do for a summary, I think. After all, I can’t give it all away! The part of the book where I really started to feel the shift was when the Fire Captain, a man named Beatty, visits Montag at his house when he is staying home “sick.” He gives a lecture that explains somewhat how books came to be banned. Some of the highlights are below. I apologize in advance for the length of the quotes, but it is important to read them to try to understand.

“Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending… Then, in midair, all vanishes! Whirl a man’s mind round about so fast, under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary time-wasting thought!”

“School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped. English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts… The zipper displaces the button and a man lacks just that much time to think while dressing at dawn, a philosophical hour, and thus a melancholy hour.”

“More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? Organize and organize and superorganize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience. Highways full of crowds going somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, nowhere.”

“ The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines become a nice blend of vanilla tapioca.”

“It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”

“… the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally ‘bright,’ did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike.”

“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?”

“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. .. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy… So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your daredevils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, stick me with the theremin, loudly. I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment.” {emphasis mine}

(Fahrenheit 451, The 50th Anniversary Edition, Ray Bradbury, 1953, Ballantine Books, New York)

I know, I know. That’s a lot to trudge through. Believe it or not, I cut what I wanted to share. In short, the idea is that by the time books were actually banned, the majority of people barely noticed because there were so many other things to capture their attention. They had already, bit by bit, begun to turn their backs on the written word, so it was a natural progression to simply do away with books, especially those that might upset people, or step on toes. It was decided that people would be happier if they were just told what to think, rather than deciding for themselves.

How much of this is reflected in society today? It seems like everything needs to be maximized to keep our attention. There’s a new commercial out now for a car, and most of the commercial shows people in every public arena saying, “Bigger, bigger, BIGGER” over and over, until someone realizes that less is more, and a smaller car might be the way to go. It seems like everything needs to be more colorful, more outrageous, louder, more extreme than ever to try to fulfill us. We need to dance faster, laugh louder, play harder, and be busier than ever before. The country spends billions on violence and entertainment, which feed each other in equal turns, while children become more and more illiterate. Recent SAT scores are at an all-time low for the reading portion. And yet, we dance on, ignoring the glaring inconsistencies in what we deem important. The most important thing has become entertainment, yet even with the technology available to us, we are harder and harder to please.

If I may take a sidestep to branch off this topic, which of course I can, because it is my blog, I attended movies the past two weekends, and things stood out each time. Last weekend, I took my nieces, age 6 and (almost) 4 to see The Lion King. The Lion King originally came out in 1994, when I was 10 years old. At the time, it was spectacular, and I watched it numerous times, until I had most of the lines memorized. What was interesting about watching it with my nieces was that they were almost bored halfway through. Allie leaned over halfway through and asked if it was almost over. Now, these girls can sit in front of the TV for hours if they are allowed, but cartoons and movies these days, just seventeen years after the original release of The Lion King, have become so full of bright colors and action that anything more tame is simply unacceptable and boring.

It’s no wonder so many kids are diagnosed with ADHD.

This weekend, I went with a friend to see the movie Drive. The first part of the movie was intriguing. The main character didn’t say much, but sent messages through facial expressions and body language. I was actually quite impressed with Ryan Gosling's ability to convey so much visually. And then, halfway through, someone’s head exploded. Literally. And the movie spiraled into sequence after sequence of bloody gratuitous violence. I kept my hands in front of my face to block out the images that were splashed across the screen without warning, that I had no desire to see and have stamped into my memory. As the final credits rolled, all I could do was turn to my friend and say, “What the hell?” All the build up in the characters from the beginning of the movie was lost, even the storyline became shaky, though I gathered we were supposed to be cheering for The Driver, as he was called throughout the film, even as he stomped a man’s skull to mush.

Now how can I be writing about the dangers of censorship and talking about the unnecessary violence in a movie in the same entry? Really, just to illustrate my point that it takes so much more to get a reaction out of people anymore. There is no emotional connection to the characters in this violent movie, and every scene is followed by nervous laughter, a tension breaker, a reminder that it’s not real, just a clever trick of special effects and makeup. How did we get so desensitized to violence? How is it that we hear about murders, real murders, daily, and have but a fleeting twinge of remorse for a life lost, if that?

Clearly the message of my writing and of Ray Bradbury’s “Farenheit 451” is not just about books. It’s about society. It’s a warning to not let yourself be drawn in and convinced that you don’t need to think for yourself. Don’t become complacent. Try to slow down. Spend some time just sitting. Take a day with no electronics. Do away with Facebook for a weekend. Disconnect from technology and reconnect with real people. Spend time listening and learning, instead of filling silences with empty words and meaningless gossip.

If you’ve made it this far, bravo. I have more to say, but it will keep for a few days. I would love to hear about times when a book/movie/song has touched/rattled you the way “Fahrenheit 451” rattled me. As always, I encourage you to read read read. But at the very least, think. :)

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