Ray Douglas Bradbury, lover of the printed page, magician, surrealist, prolific writer of fantasy, horror, science fiction, and mystery, turned 91 this week, and critics and readers are still sharply divided over the man.
American novelist and critic Christopher Isherwood once wrote in a review of Bradbury’s work that the “sheer lift and power of a truly original imagination exhilarates... His is a very great and unusual talent.” That review stood in sharp contract to science fiction author and critic Damon Knight’s assessement that Bradbury’s “imagination is mediocre; he borrows nearly all his backgrounds and props, and distorts them badly.”
When readers judge Bradbury, they think of “Fahrenheit 451” first out of his more than 500 published works, because “Fahrenheit 451” is his dystopian masterpiece and because it a novel that was close to Bradbury’s heart.
The book presents a future that would be horrific for any reader — a future in which books cannot be read. The novel’s title refers to the supposed temperature at which book paper combusts.
The book also presents the future Bradbury — who said he was “raised in libraries” and has been called a Luddite for his dismissal of technologies, including the Internet — most fears.
(Note: I once tried to wrangle Bradbury into an online chat with Washington Post readers. His publicist told me that’s the last thing Bradbury would want to do.)
Fifty years later, Fahrenheit 451 looks very different than when it was first published in a shorter form as “The Fireman,” and time has only made readers more sharply divided over the book, and the man.
Writer Steve West on the science fiction Web site Giant Freakin Robot wrote this of “Fahrenheit 451” this week:
What I’ve never understood is the way in which so many people claim to love the anti-censorship message of the story, but fail to notice it’s we TV watchers who are the villains. Society, by turning from the printed word towards television, brought about the dystopian world of book burning firemen... The idea that television, or the internet for that matter, will someday turn mankind into oblivious automatons is short sighted... There’s nothing to gain by willfully ignoring an avenue for gaining knowledge based on unfounded bias.
But other readers said that wasn’t the point. Author Alice Hoffman wrote of the book:
His stories embraced a different reality, and they insulated me from the despair of a family that was breaking apart. It was the realization that stories could save readers that made me begin thinking about being a writer myself. I was able to see through my own heartbreak into the future, and I decided to write myself there.
But there is one line from “Fahrenheit 451” all readers agree on, a line readers have been sharing hundreds of times this week, sure that it remains true no matter what you think of Bradbury’s work:
“You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”