Sunday, June 03, 2007

Ray Bradbury on Fahrenheit 451

This article in LA Weekly talks with Ray Bradbury and he has interesting thing to say about what Fahrenheit 451 is really about. Instead of it being about government censorship (which is what pretty much everyone believes), Bradbury say it’s really all about TV and how it destroys interest in literature.

I find this very interesting on two very different trains of thought. First, I have to say that I think he’s dead-on. In general terms, TV does destroy interest in literature – in fact, I think that in general TV destroys thought. I’ve ranted before about TV and movies being a passive activity versus the active activity that reading is – I believe very strongly this to be the case. Now, sure I watch my fair share of TV, but I do prefer reading. So, in this respect, I’d say that Bradbury’s intent with Fahrenheit 451 hit the mark in perhaps even a more relevant and scary way that the usual interpretation of censorship.

I also can’t help but feel that Bradbury is wrong – Fahrenheit 451 is clearly about censorship and to say otherwise is a mistake. In many ways a book is not about what the author thinks it is – it’s about what the reader thinks it is. Once something is written and published, the author is no longer in control in terms of interpretation of that book – it’s now all in the hands of the readers. So, if almost everyone who reads Fahrenheit 451 believes it to be about censorship, then it is about censorship – regardless of what Bradbury says or believes.

Anyway, my intent isn’t to on and on in some essay form here, but just to express my thoughts on an interesting article and piece of news. If you haven’t read Fahrenheit 451, you need to – it’s more relevant now than ever however you choose to interpret it. If you haven’t read in your adult life, it’s time to revisit this true classic of science fiction literature.


Carl V. Anderson said...

I read about this the other day, and I found it quite surprising and interesting.

I find the tv vs. reading debate interesting. On the surface I think it is probably true that the ease with which one can absord tv and film dose encroach upon literature. At the same time, the only way to do a fair study would be to look at the percentages of the general public who read for entertainment in the days before television vs. those that do now. And maybe such a study exists. I'm not sure.

While I do agree with that point, I do not necessarily agree that tv and film is least not ALL tv and film. I think it depends on the program/film AND upon the person watching.

I certainly watch some garbage on television that is nothing but passive...and probably brain rotting to boot! ;)

But the shows that I get enmeshed in...Firefly, Wonderfalls (for example) or films that top my all-time lists (LOTR trilogy, Pan's Labyrinth, Labyrinth, the original Star Wars trilogy, the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, most of the films of Tim Burton, name but a few) are anything but passive experiences. I watch and rewatch them, studying nuances in story, character, plot...I watch the extras over and over again. I get online and read more about these and take that knowledge back to the viewing of the films. I share them with others and engage in dialogue about them. In that sense film and television are anything but passive experiences.

Both have fueled my imagination and film especially has fueled and continues to fuel my love of reading and exploring different kinds of literature.

I certainly am not meaning to be difficult, but I had to share my opinion that I don't believe a blanket statement about the active or passive state of television or film is an accurate one. There are simply too many factors.

Of course I may be completely misunderstanding what you mean by that and cannot wait to read your essay.

Carl V. Anderson said...

Oh, and in regards to your comments on Bradbury and what F:451 is about, I think you are dead on. This is one of the best examples I have seen in a long time for the interpretation of art being an individualistic thing. It doesn't entirely matter what his intentions were, people have read the other into it for so long...and by all accounts it fits...that the most popular interpretation is certainly a valid one.

Joe said...

Yes, yes, yes!

I've been engaged in several arguments in the past about authorial intent vs reader interpretation and I fall on the side of reader interpretation.

If you or I believe a novel is speaking to a particular point of view and the text supports it, then no matter what the original intent of the author is, that novel can also speak to that point of long as it can be supported in the text.

Carl V. Anderson said...

I agree, Joe. I am forever interested in the author's intent as there are always many facets of a story that I might not have gotten the first time around, etc, but I think what we take away from a book in our interpretation of it is one of the true gifts of literature.

Neth said...


One of the reason's I feel the way I do is because I've seen some studies published (Science mag?) where they hook up a brain monitor to people watching TV vs. other things such as reading. Watching TV causes much less brain activity than most anything else. Of course this won't be the case for all TV, but it generally seems to be the case.

We all seem to be agreed on intent vs. reader interpretation.

Carl V. Anderson said...

I'd love to see the same scientific study done when watching something like American Idol...I'm sure then it would show near comatose brain activity!!!

Fence said...

I read this too and found it really interesting, mainly because I'm always interested in how books become interpreted to mean something that the author never intended. And I think that any book can pretty much be used to back up any argument. Obviously in some cases it'll take a lot more work :)

I'd have to disagree with the idea of telly being a passive activity, at least in comparison with books. Is it easy to sit in front of the screen and just absorb? Yes, but it is just as easy to read books and do nothing but absorb without thinking. It depends on the actual book, or television show.

Every reader brings their own experiences to whatever books they read. And they do exactly the same to every tv show they watch. You can actively watch and engage with a television show, just as you can with a book.

The thing is though, many people don't want to. They want to be entertained, nothing more, and so with no effort can flick on the latest season of Big Brother (or whatever) and do just that. Or, they flick open the latest Da Vinci code knock-off book and do the same thing.

Neth said...


It's all about the brain activity - reading is much more of a 'complete workout' for the brain - you use a lot more of it than watching TV. If I get the time I'll have to search out some of these studies I'm mentioning (as much to correct my probably embelished memory of them as anything).

-Carl, I'm fairly certain that American Idol causes brain damage ;)

Carl V. Anderson said...

I don't think anyone would argue that television probably causes less brain activity than reading and reading is probably *more* of an active workout...but that is a completely different idea than saying that television is a passive activity. I guess alot would depend both on one's definition of passive vs. active, and exactly what a person was watching and their investment in said program.

What I would be really interested is sort of on the lines of what I mentioned in my first response...a percentage of active readers pre-television days vs. today. I think the results would be interesting, though I'm not sure such a study would be possible. A sub-focus of the same study could be if there has been any difference between the percentage of the population that reads now vs. pre-cable television days...or by decade...

Jeff S. said...

I will also agree with everyone else in saying reader interpretation outweighs author's intent. I think that in Bradbury's case too after such a long time he may be trying to introduce some revisionist history to his work.

As for the brain activity or reading vs. watching tv I guess what's the point? What's this extra brain activity from reading getting me? Is there anyway they can study that? I feel many harder core readers have an elitest attitude towards tv watchers. I just say to each his own.

As for reading for pleasure studies. I picked up a copy of just such a study completed last year at the Library. The National Library Assocaition has done several over the past decade and they specificly ask people about reading habits such as reading for pleasure and such and as you might guess we are a declineing in reading in the traditional book sense. I personnely would like to see them take into account people's time reading on the internet. I think then they would find that people acutally read more now if you include internet time along with the traditional dead tree format. I'm not a pureist I say reading is reading no matter the format one chooses.

Great topic Neth. Reminds me I need 451 again, too. :)

Unknown said...

...once a book is published, an author can only do so much to have his interpretation of the work stand for the work. No matter what the author may try, in the final analysis the book stands naked before the reader, and the reader can garb it as s/he chooses.

That said, while I agree with him that tv stimulates one in a way that is counter-productive to reading (though I'm not sure I agree it dulls the mind completely) I'm not sure his book is ALL about Video-Killed-The-AuthorStar. (And if it is, it's rather poorly constructed.)

Perhaps in the backstory? A banning of books - what would it take to get a populace to tamely agree to that? Perhaps that is where the TV villain of Farenheit 451 looms.

But he doesn't make it sound so.

Also: this revelation is a tad, er, delayed? Wouldn't it have had greater impact a few decades ago?

Fred said...

Bradbury said that the novel is not about government censorship. Instead, it's about the individual censorship of those aspects of reality they don't want to face, like Clarice's question "are you happy?"

Montag wrestles this question but Mildred tries to drown it out with pills and her "family."

And Bradbury was right. The individual reader censors whatever details they don't like in the books that they read. There are better and worse interpretations of books: the better interpretations take more details into account.

What surprised me most in my recent re-reading of F451 was the pains Bradbury takes to lay out his story in a democratic society and to trace the roots of censorship to popular causes rather than to tyrannical ones.


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