While books like 1984 and Brave New World are getting a lot of buzz right now because of the political climate of the country, I think there’s a classic dystopian title which is even more deserving of our reading (and re-reading): Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
If you’ve not read the book, you likely at least know its general plot: In the future, firemen no longer put out fires, rather, they start fires to piles of books. Books have been outlawed, and anyone caught with them is a criminal whose stash is to be burned up, sometimes with the daring reader along with it.
One particular firefighter, Guy Montag, encounters a couple of people who help change his mind about books, and particularly, the ideas held within them.
While 1984 and Brave New World offer scary glimpses of a future that some argue is already here, Fahrenheit 451 is filled with hope, and offers ideas for how people can resist — not the government necessarily, but the shallowness and thoughtlessness of the age.
Let’s look at a few specific lessons we can garner from Bradbury’s classic.
If You Want Better Media, Vote With Your Clicks and Dollars
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
In the dystopian future Fahrenheit 451 depicts, books slowly lost their value over time. As society began to move at a faster pace (quite literally — cars travel so fast that billboards must stretch 200 feet long to be readable), the written word started to seem too slow and boring, especially in comparison to the new forms of media that became available. People preferred to stay home and watch the “parlor walls” — giant television screens — or go see a sporting event instead of reading. Publishers abridged books into shorter and shorter works to meet the needs of steadily atrophying attention spans, but demand for even these “Cliffs Notes” shriveled.
Eventually, the government simply banned books altogether, under the pretense that not having to deal with reading and difficult-to-digest ideas would make the public happier.
Looking at the current media landscape, it’s a course of events that doesn’t seem entirely far-fetched.
Articles and books have been made ever shorter (or substituted altogether for videos) in order to appeal to those who cry “TL;DR!” to anything over 500 words. News and debates are often conducted in soundbites and conveyed in 140-character tweets.
Many people shake their heads at these trends, and act as if they’ve been brought about by shadowy forces and greedy media corporations. “Those people” over “there” are to blame.
It’s true that media companies do want to make money. But they’re only able to do so by fulfilling what the consumer demands. If the consumer wants short, dumbed-down content, that’s what is produced. Websites wouldn’t create clickbait headlines if they weren’t effective in soliciting clicks.
The reality is that it isn’t corporations who are responsible for our media, but the public. You, me, and everyone else. How you direct your attention, what subscriptions you’re willing to pay for, and what you click/share/re-tweet greatly determines the content that is put out by websites and media corporations.
If you vote for quality with your clicks, that’s what you’ll get. If you vote for bite-sized nuggets of fluff, an endless supply will be produced.
Until at some point, as in Bradbury’s novel, all information becomes so trivial and seemingly useless, that it could be banned outright and only elicit a shrug of the shoulders.
Facts Are Useless Without Context
“Cram them full of non-combustible 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.”
Our modern society has an obsession with acquiring information, most of it in the form of social media and internet articles. We think that reading about the news (in reality, often just the headlines of the news) and keeping up with what’s happening with our Facebook friends, makes us smart, informed citizens.
And to some degree it does. Surely, having some knowledge of mere facts is better than none. The problem, especially today, is that by simply watching the news or reading articles on the internet, you can hear very different facts about the exact same subject. It’s really hard to know who to trust, how to suss out what the truth is about a certain matter (if that’s even possible at all), and how to develop a truly informed opinion about something. Rather than putting in the hard work of doing those things, we simply hit the “Share” button or re-tweet something after reading a headline that we think conveys some new information.
In today’s world, being informed doesn’t actually matter much, or set you apart. Simply knowing isn’t enough, even though it can sure feel like it. As Bradbury writes above, when you’re chock-full of information, you feel satisfied and enormously “brilliant.” But are you really?
Our world isn’t made better or moved forward by knowing facts. It’s the “slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology” that enables progress of thought and action. It’s thinking deeply, connecting ideas, knowing the context of those ideas, and solving problems by delving into your toolkit of mental models that matters.
As Montag’s sage mentor, Faber, says:
“It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. … There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”
You don’t need more information. You need new ways of stitching the world together.
To give a quick example, let’s briefly look at Paleo dieting. Many folks in the last decade have taken up what they consider to be the diet of cavemen. Eggs every morning, plenty of meat/seafood, nuts, leafy greens, etc. This is based on the information that those foods are what our prehistoric ancestors — who were presumably healthier than their modern, overweight descendants — had available to them.
But it’s not that simple. As Kamal Patel asked in his podcast with Brett, “Would paleo man have really eaten 3 eggs every morning?” It’s far more likely that ancient humans had a varied diet based on what they could hunt and forage at that time and season rather than eating the same things every day. They likely had intermittent periods of fasting and gorging, and consumed many foods that are either now extinct or look very different than they did 10,000 years ago (though of course some are also remarkably similar).
On top of all that, can we really be sure that a caveman diet is what’s best for everyone in the 21st century? It’s more likely that folks have different needs and that various diet regimens can work for them.
See how adding a little bit of context from history, archaeology, and modern nutrition creates a very different picture than the simple facts of “knowing” what constituted a caveman’s diet?
So what does one do to be able to look at ideas through different lenses, and not just amass facts but connect them together?
Read widely, both fiction and non-fiction. Consider both sides of an issue — or take it a step further and dismiss both and come up with your own opinion or theory (one based on evidence, of course). Delve into various disciplines like biology, philosophy, psychology, sociology, physics — spend more effort on trying to understand how the world works and less on understanding pop culture. An ancient Greek classic could end up giving you more insight into the modern world than a catchy internet headline (or even an evening newscast) ever could.
Don’t Let Fictional Characters Become Your “Family”
As a man in my late 20s, in social situations it feels as if I’m expected to be in touch with every corner of popular culture. Inside jokes are based on an SNL skit, references are made to Breaking Bad’s Walter White (even here on AoM), and of course, Queen Bey’s upcoming twins are even a topic of conversation.
Frankly, it’s a lot to keep up with. You truly can end up feeling out of the know if you’re not aware of what’s going on in the world of sports and entertainment. I’ve only fleetingly even heard of Chance the Rapper, so I felt rather out of touch when everyone was talking about his Grammy win a while back.
To be a Netflix or Hulu “binger” has become common (and yes, my wife and I are plenty guilty at times — we plowed through The Crown and loved it).
And when we’re not in front of a TV, our attention is bogarted by some other screen — be it a phone or laptop or tablet. Americans are in fact consumed by screens for more than 10 hours a day. This can be a little misleading — if you’re working for 8 or 9 hours in an office, that’s the bulk of it right there. And yet, if you’re honest, you know that even outside the office a lot of your life is spent staring at backlit rectangles.
While this is partly just the new reality of the world we live in, it’s also a sad testament to the inevitable loss of “analog” experiences — the way digital gigabytes have become substitutes for flesh and blood relationships.
Guy Montag sees this happening in his own household and tries to quell it, asking his wife “‘Will you turn the parlor [television] off?” To which she indignantly replies: “That’s my family.”
His wife can’t bear the thought of turning off the tube because the characters provide her companionship.
This idea — of the entertainment being her family — is repeated throughout the novel, and really stuck with me. It’s a little absurd, but when you think about it, our lives just aren’t that different. The people in our screens — be they internet celebrities or TV show characters — in many ways have become our extended kin. We spend a lot of time with them, we quote them, we aspire to be like them. We plan our weeks and evenings around when certain shows are on (or when they’ll be available online). We analyze the events in a fictional storyline and come up with “fan theories” about how those universes operate. All the while, we may be ignoring the many nuances, plot developments, and character arcs of our own loved ones and the communities right outside our door.
Make an effort to give a little less credence to your fictional family, and more time and effort to your IRL family. (That’s internet slang for “in real life.”)
Substance Matters; Conversation Matters
“‘Sometimes I sneak around and listen in subways. Or I listen at soda fountains, and do you know what?’
‘People don’t talk about anything!’
‘Oh, they must!’
‘No, not anything. They name a lot of cars or clothes or swimming pools mostly and say how swell! But they all say the same things and nobody says anything different from anyone else.’”
If I’m being honest, many phone calls with family (especially the guys) are a little shallow. There’s a lot of sports and weather chit chat. Sometimes there’s a question about a house project. And of course I always give an update about how our son is doing and if he’s added any words to his growing vocabulary.
But, generally, there isn’t a ton of substance about how work is going, the general mood of the household (which fluctuates greatly with a toddler), our thoughts on current events, etc. And when those questions do pop up, I’m often guilty of a quick answer: “Things are going well!”
And I notice the same pattern when amongst friends too. We rarely dig deeper than the shallow topsoil of weather, sports, quick updates about work, etc. Sometimes it goes beyond that into deeper bedrock, but it admittedly takes some event for that to be the case — being laid off, a breakup, an illness, etc.
While small talk and even seemingly shallow subjects are often what grease the wheels into deeper topics of conversation, you can’t stay flat forever with the people you love and have repeated interactions with. Things lose momentum that way. Relationships become stale. The idea of any disagreement or conflict, or even simply not getting affirmation, leads us to not bring up our fears, dreams, even the interesting things we’ve maybe learned that day.
Guy Montag feels this throughout the book. Within his group of “friends,” there is nothing of depth ever talked about. It revolves around complaining about kids, the latest gossip about town, political trivialities, and of course, the “family” in the TV parlor. When he tries to bring up bigger ideas about the society they live in, or even when he tries to read some poetry aloud, he’s scolded and called crazy. Which in turn, makes him indeed feel crazy.
In order for life to have texture and meaning, we need to be able to talk about important things with other folks beyond just the latest smartphone apps or the new car you bought. As Susan Neiman rightly argues, asking big questions — those of a moral and value-based nature — are a sign of growing up.
My challenge to you is not simply to have those conversations and thoughts within yourself (that’s Step 1, as noted above), but to share those thoughts and questions with your friends and family. Ask your wife or girlfriend what her dreams are (and ask repeatedly — they’ll probably evolve and likely even change entirely over the course of time). Share with your friends some thoughts you had about a book you recently read. Heck, read some moving poetry aloud! You might be literally laughed at, but you might not, and if you’re among friends, there’s really no risk.
In a world of clickbait headlines and “hot takes” about current events and trends, being someone who can think for themselves, and takes seriously the value of community and family, makes you stand out amongst the crowd, and allows you not to be tossed about by whichever cultural current has the most steam that day. Be like Guy Montag. Rather than setting little fires of pop culture and political debate, and letting your attention span smolder into ashes, pause from time to time to extinguish the ever-burning glow of your smartphone and restore the values of deep knowledge, face-to-face relationships, and real conversation.