by Jonathan Rothwell

Ray Bradbury 1920–2012

Ray Bradbury, the prolific speculative fiction author, has died at the age of 91 following a long illness.

Bradbury was famous for his many soft sci-fi and fantasy novels, and perhaps most famous for his 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451. Although this book is superficially about censorship, Bradbury always claimed it was instead about how television had driven public information to the lowest common demoninator of easily-digestible gruel. Bradbury himself said it best:

“Television gives you the dates of Napoleon, but not who he was,” Bradbury says, summarizing TV’s content with a single word that he spits out as an epithet: “factoids.” He says this while sitting in a room dominated by a gigantic flat-panel television broadcasting the Fox News Channel, muted, factoids crawling across the bottom of the screen.

This was Bradbury’s innovation, and one that rings true today. In Fahrenheit 451, the enemy is not the state: it is the people, the proles. While we should be perpetually wary of censorship, we should also keep an eye on our own attention spans.

Consider, for instance, the Internet. In the next hour, you could use the Web to download a movie (legally, of course) or a music album. You could read a novel—or even write one—or, if you’re feeling particularly inquisitive, investigate one of science’s great unknown problems.

In all probability, however, you’re currently using the Web as a distraction. This means you’ll probably spend the next hour or so looking for funny pictures of cats, or viewing Rachel Bloom’s brilliant spoof pop video from 2010, Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury.

That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with using the Internet, or television, as a distraction. However, the true undercurrent of Fahrenheit 451 was laziness, a lack of want to sit down with something that demands more than a cast of the eye for it to be understood. That the book has been misinterpreted by so many probably proves Bradbury’s point.

As a man, Bradbury is said to have been somewhat arrogant, and something of a luddite. He harboured a distrust of ‘intellectuals’ and was sceptical enough of modern technology to resist, until very recently, the release of his work as e-books.

If we peel past his flaws, however, Bradbury spoke a lot of sense. The fact he chose his epitaph to read Author of Fahrenheit 451 would indicate that he considered that to be his most important work.

The legacy, then, of Ray Bradbury, is that it is important to be able to read. Not to glance, not to skim, not to cast one’s eye over, but to read: for if we forget how to read, something truly wicked this way will come.1

Not necessarily censorship, but our own apathy, laziness and unwillingness to learn anything.

  1. And by come, I don’t mean ‘ejaculate on a book.’