April has come and gone. Bring on the May flowers (and the live oak catkins and the itchy eyes). Did you join us last month in the Big Read? Did you enjoy Fahrenheit 451? Somehow I’d made it 43 years without ever having read the Bradbury classic. I finished it last night around 11 o’clock, just under the wire. My wife read it, too, along with the rest of her book club. Which brings me to a discussion my family had at the dinner table last week.
Sam Weller, Bradbury’s biographer, wrote a great piece (paywall) for the Morning News in advance of his recent visit to our fair burg. Even though I’d never read Fahrenheit 451, I knew what it was about: censorship. Not so, wrote Weller:
“[I]n 2007, Bradbury vehemently denied that he was satirically commenting on McCarthy or government censorship. Instead, he insisted, the book was written at the dawn of the television age and was a cautionary tale of how society could well reach to TV as a sort of opiate. Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury said, was a depiction of a society willfully dumbing itself down by staring at screens, stuffing its collective consciousness with useless factoids, empty ideas and throwaway reality.”
I read Weller’s essay when I was about halfway through the book. How interesting, I thought. Because the book burning stuff didn’t hit me with a fraction of the force that Bradbury’s descriptions of future TV did. He published that book in 1953, but, man, did he see what was coming. More and more screens, live police chases broadcast from helicopters. Just stunning.
So at dinner the other night, inspired by Bradbury’s dystopian vision of a future in which we find ourselves, presently, living, my wife cooked up a most horrible new house rule. She proposed a screen embargo during dinnertime hours, which would then be capped off by a screen curfew that would end our evenings. The exact times and terminology are still being debated by the delegates.
Here’s what Bradbury didn’t predict: the smartphone. My 14-year-old boy has gotten into the habit of turning on the television, plopping down on the couch, and then firing up his iPhone. Because, you know, one screen just isn’t entertaining enough. Bradbury thought we’d have screens mounted on all four walls of our parlors, providing us with an immersive environment in which characters from shows would talk directly to us, using our names, becoming our “family.” Yeah, well, maybe. But right now it’s not about immersion in one show. It’s distraction. Multitasking. Watching Hardcore Pawn while texting and playing Reckless Racing 2. And, yes, I do it, too. (How can you watch a baseball game without checking Twitter? Isn’t that, like, impossible?)
The Big Read was a group effort. The NEA, Arts Midwest, and the Dallas Public Library all played a role. But the lady who really got it done, the one who handed out thousands of books and organized read-ins and screenings and other specials events, is our managing editor, Krista Nightengale (though I’m sure she will read this post and protest). So it is Krista that my son now hates. Or at least that is what I’m telling him. Not Mom. Not Dad. When the screen embargo kicks in every night, you think about that mean farm girl from Oklahoma and her efforts to improve literacy.
It is only a matter of time before the lad realizes that fire is the best solution for everything.