Storytellers or Oracles

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I love learning new things and about new things.  A few days ago I was watching the CBS Morning Show and was fascinated by a story about a new sound system from Dolby called Dolby Atmos.  On CBS Morning Show’s web site, the spot is entitled “New Sound Technology Enhances 3D Movie Experience.”  My mind went to a book as I was watching the segment.  No surprise there, right?  The whole sound system isn’t nearly as new as it seems.  Ray Bradbury describes this innovation in his novel Fahrenheit 451. 

I’d like you to watch the video before reading any further so that you can get the connection right away.  Just follow the link below.

Welcome back.

Science fiction is not one of my preferred genres to read, but there are sci-fi novels that I have chosen to read and loved.  They aren’t Star Trek or Star Wars novelizations.  I usually come to these at the recommendation of friends known to be thoughtful readers. There are times when our really excellent science fiction writers are oracles.  And this is what caused me to connect this story with Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

If you have never read this book, you really must.  If you haven’t read this book since it was assigned to you in a class, you really must reread it.  A number of years ago I reread this book in preparation to teach it.  My mind was blown!  I kept referring back to the copyright date.  The novel and I were born in the same year – 1953.  (Yes, I’m that old.)  What blew me away was that I could easily have been reading something written and set in the present, and we would recognize it! 

The portion of the book that I am concerned with in this writing is where the fire captain, Beatty, visits Montag and explains how the country came to have fire companies that burn books.  So I reread that part.  It is long – running from page 54 to page 62.  I started wondering how much of it should be quoted in this reflection. While mulling over this question, I began rereading other passages of the book including the Coda in the edition I have.  (My edition contains an afterword copyrighted in 1982 and a Coda copyrighted in 1979.)  In the Coda, Bradbury rails against the way text books have treated the stories they print from major authors – including the ways they wanted to expurgate his.  As he describes it, they “skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy.  Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito – out!  Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch – gone!  Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer – lost!”  He tells of receiving requests to publish his work with some minor changes to which he says he fired the lot, sent rejection slips to them all, and ticketed “the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.” (176) 

Since I want no such ticket, I am tempted to include the entirety of those nine pages here.  Since I really don’t want to include more than is necessary, I am tempted to only quote the lines I am reflecting on.  Therefore, I have come up with a compromise.  Here’s what I will do.

    1. I will quote most of the passage at length.  I’ll be leaving out Montag’s wife fiddling with pillows.  In fact, I’m leaving out Mildred all together.  She isn’t essential my purpose. 
    2. I will put the quoted passage here with some commentary noted within it.  The commentary will be easily spotted because the font is blue, bold, and italics or it is in the form of  graphics.
    3. I will mark clearly where the passage begins and ends in red.  While I hope you read all of it, you can skim through or even skip it if you are familiar with the book and just read the commentary.  (If you don’t know the book, I hope you’ll read all of what is here.)
    4. I will then put what I have to add and some recommended reading following the passage.


“When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours [burning books], how did it come about, where, when?  Well, I’d say it really got started around about a thing called the Civil War.  Even though our rule book claims it was founded earlier.  The fact is we didn’t get along well until photography came into its own.  Then – motion pictures in the early twentieth century.  Radio.  Television.  Things began to have mass….And because they had mass,, the became simpler,” said Beatty.  “Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere.  They could afford to be different.  The world was roomy.  But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths.  Double, tripe, quadruple population.  Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me?”

“I think so.”

Beatty peered at the smoke pattern he had put out on the air.  “Picture it.  Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion.  Then in the twentieth century, speed up your camera.  Books cut shorter.  Condensations.  Digests.  Tabloids.  Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.” …

Screenshot 2017-05-22 15.38.26“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume.  I exaggerate, of course.  The dictionaries were for reference.  But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet (you know the title certainly, Montag; it is probably only a fait rumor of a title to you, Mrs. Montag) whose sole knowledge, as I say of Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.  Do you see?  Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.” …    Screenshot 2017-05-22 15.31.23

“School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually gradually neglected, finally almost ignored. [R U still RDG? LOL] Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work.  Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”…

“The zipper displaces the buttons and a man lacks just that much time to think while dressing at dawn, a philosophical hour, and thus a melancholy hour.”…

“Empty the theaters save for clowns and furnish the rooms with glass walls and pretty colors running up and down the walls like confetti or blood or sherry or sauterne.  You like baseball, don’t you, Montag?”

“Baseball’s a fine game.”…

“You like bowing, don’t you, Montag?”

“Bowling, yes.”

“And golf?”

“Golf is a fine game.”


“A fine game.”

“Billiards, pool? Football?”

“Fine games, all of them.”

“More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? Organize and organize and super organize super-super sports. More cartoons in books.  More Screenshot 2017-05-22 15.39.23pictures.  The mind drinks less and less.  Impatience.  Highways full of crowds going somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, nowhere.  The gasoline refugee.  Towns turn into motels, people in nomadic surges from place to place, following the moon tides, living tonight in the room where you step this noon and I the night before.”…

“Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we?  Bigger the population, the more minorities.  Don’t step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico.  The people in this book, this play, this TV series are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere.  The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that!  All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean.  Authors, fun of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters.  The did.  Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca.  Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater.  No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said.  But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive.  And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course.  There you have it, Montag.  It didn’t come from the Government down.  There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship to start with, no!  Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.  Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessionals, or trade journals.”  

“Yes, but what about the firemen, then?” asked Montag.

“Ah,” Beatty leaned forward in the faint mist of smoke from his pipe.  “What more easily explained and natural?  With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.  [45’s campaign aggressively sought the votes of the uneducated – and cast dispersions on those with degrees] You always dread the unfamiliar.  Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally ‘bright,’ did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him.  And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? [Didn’t bully or beat up anyone?  Have you ever used/heard the terms “brown-noser,” or “teacher’s pet”?  Remember when “nerd” and “geek” were used to describe the smart kids?  (Now that some segments took it over and claimed it with pride, does it still have the same impact? ) After 30+ years in the classroom, I know the opposing pressures children have.  Their parents want A’s on the report card but their friends encourage mediocrity.  I also know that schools and parents often value athletic ability over academic.] Of course it was.  We must all be alike.  Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal.  Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.  So!  A book is a loaded gun in the house next door.  Burn it.  Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?  Me?  I won’t stomach them for a minute.  And so when houses were finally fireproofed completely, all over the world…there was no longer need of firemen for the old purposes.  They were given a the new job, as custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior:  official censors, judges, and executors.  That’s you, Montag, and that’s me.”…  [Political Correctness run amok!  As our society tries harder and harder to offend no one, everyone becomes more and more offended by everything.  Many seem to try to find a reason to be offended!  The other day I read a post where someone was attacking Mike Pence for something he quoted.   They didn’t have a problem with the person who originally said it.  And their argument against his use of it was so far out there that I couldn’t even see the connection between his use of the quote and their offense!  Maybe they had an agenda and couldn’t find enough fodder that day?]

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“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred.  Ask yourself.  What do we want in this country, above all?  People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life?  I want to be happy, people say.  Well, aren’t they?  Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun?  That’s all we live for, isn’t it?  For pleasure, for titillation?  And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.”…

“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it.  White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Burn it.  Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs?  The cigarette people are weeping?  Burn the book.  Serenity, Montag.  Peace, Montag.  Take your fight outside.  Better yet, into the incinerator.  Funerals are unhappy and pagan?  Eliminate them, too.  Five minutes after a person is dead he’s on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country.  Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust.  Let’s not quibble over individuals with memories.  Forget them.  Burn all, burn everything.  Fire is bright and fire is clean…

“There was a girl next door,” [Montag] said, slowly.  “She’s gone now, I think dead.  I can’t even remember her face.  But she was different.  How – how did she happen?”

Beatty smiled, “Here or there, that’s bound to occur.  Clarisse McClellan?  We’ve a record on her family.  We’ve watched them carefully.  Heredity and environment are funny things.  You can’t rid yourselves of all the odd ducks in just a few years.  The home environment can undo a lot you try to do at school.  That’s why we’ve lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now we’re almost snatching them from the cradle.  We had some false alarms on the McClellans, when they lived in Chicago.  Never found a book.  Uncle had a mixed record; antisocial.  The girl?  She was a time bomb.  The family had been feed her subconscious, I’m sure, from what I saw of her school record.  She didn’t want to know how a thing was done, but why.  That can be embarrassing.  You ask why to a lot of things and you wind up very unhappy indeed, if you keep at it.  The poor girl’s better off dead.”

“Yes, dead.”

“Luckily, queer ones like her don’t happen often.  We know how to nip most of them in the bud, early.  You can’t build a house without nails and wood.  If you don’t want a house built, hid the nails and wood.  If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. [As people more and more select their news sources to bolster their held biases, we are reduced to never hearing an opposing view.  But even scarier is way the current administration labels any story that it disagrees with as “false news” and when called out on their lies then labels them as “alternative facts.” And the scariest trend here is the recurring threats from the administration to not allow media access, their excluding press sources that don’t follow in lock-step with their ideas and words, their edicts to government departments ruling which news source is the only one allowed within the offices, and their inclusion of foreign (Russian) press while excluding American press.]

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Let him forget there is such a thing as war.  If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it.  Peace, Montag.  Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year.  Cram them full of noncumbustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information.  [You know, the kind that can be evaluated on a multiple-choice, standardized test.] 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.  Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely.  I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it.  So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your daredevils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex.  If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the theremin, loudly.  I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration.  But I don’t care.  I just like solid entertainment.”… [Remember our opening video?  I also had tucked into my copy of Fahrenheit 451 a Q&A page from Parade Magazine dated March 28, 1999.  The question:  “Why do directors drown out dialogue with music and deafening sound effects? Answer:  “Since Hollywood now gets much of its profits from foreign audiences whose language isn’t English, young directors are making films where dialogue is considered less important than action and loud is equated with exciting.  What’s more, the new digital formats offer six channels of audio, so ‘sound editors are encouraged to push myriad effects,’ says the chief sound engineer at one studio. ‘When they mix everything together, it becomes a loud mess.’ And it drowns out the dialogue coming from the center speaker.”]

This exchange with Beatty brought a memory to Montag of something Clarisse had talked to him about.  He remembers her saying,  “No front porches.  My uncle says that there used to be front porches.  And people sat there sometimes at night, talking when they wanted to talk, rocking, and not talking when they didn’t want to talk.  Sometimes they just sat there and thought about things, turned things over.  My uncle says the architects got rid of the front porches because they didn’t look well.  But my uncles says that was merely rationalizing it; the real reason, hidden underneath, might be they didn’t want people sitting like that, doing nothing, rocking, talking; that was the wrong kind of social life.  People talked too much. [I remember sitting on the porch swing, the glider, the rocker on many front porches.  I love them.  I also remember from my childhood the women who lived next door and directly across the street from her sitting out on their porches and having conversations late into the evening – without either leaving her own porch!    Today we keep “in touch” with old friends through Facebook instead of visiting or even giving them a call to chat.  And do we call family and friends today?  No!  Why call when you can text? Sure there is no nuanced conversation, no real vitally interesting give and take, but it’s so convenient.  I know.  I’m guilty.]  And they had time to think.  So they ran off with the porches.  And the gardens, too.  Not many gardens any more to sit around in. And look at the furniture.  No rocking chairs any more. They’re too comfortable. Get people up and running around…”  [Can we say “Pokemon Go”?]


Our excellent science fiction oracles have used their words to show us a glimpse of ourselves today.  Mildred Montag is all involved with her “family” that she watches day and night on television screens that go wall to wall around the room.  I remember my grandparents and my mother talking about “their stories” and recounting what the people were doing on their soap operas as if they were friends and relatives.  Today we watch real people living their “real lives” (if you can believe them) through reality tv shows where we follow the Kardashians, the Osbournes, “average” people living on the Jersey shore, and the real housewives of various cities.  People get so wrapped up in their shows that they take the place of real friends.  We can vote instantaneously on shows like The Voice, American Idol, and America’s Got Talent.  We have interactive stories and virtual reality that is very much like what Mildred had.  When I was growing up, I couldn’t have imagined such things as virtual reality or interactive technology.  Bradbury did.  And he wrote this over sixty years ago. 

Ray Bradbury wrote a book in which he satirized society in the 1950’s.  The book was and is quite controversial prompting many to challenge and try to censor the book.  (Can we say “irony”?)  What trends was he already witnessing then?  How did he so accurately foresee the future?  In this passage alone, Bradbury describes our current house designs with nice decks and patios out back where the ideal is to have privacy from our neighbors.  He accurately captures our movies and television shows, our books, our emphasis on sports and entertainment, our desire for political correctness, our distrust of genius or even of intelligence and learning, our desire to belittle people to make ourselves seem bigger, and our distrust of things that are different.  How close are we getting to the society he has portrayed? 

It scares me to think…maybe I should just go out and see Alien: Covenant or The Fate of the Furious.

Before You Go:

If I started you thinking, you might want to look at some of the best science fiction out there.  Below is a list of 20 authors to get you started.  Some will say, but where is Tolkien, Lewis, Brooks, Jordan, Pratchett, Rowling, or Gaiman.  All truly excellent writers of fantasy novels, not science fiction.   For this post, I am only listing science fiction.  The writers here represent some of the best from days past and from current writers, those who write for adults as well as some who write for a younger group.  What they have in common is the ability to write well, create science fiction settings and characters that are believable and engrossing, and in many cases tell us something about ourselves.  Try some of these…and, as always, send me some suggestions of others to read!

  • Douglas Adams – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe and Everything; So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish; Mostly Harmless)
  • Isaac Asimov – Foundation Series
  • Margaret AtwoodThe Handmaid’s Tale
  • Ray BradburyFahrenheit 451  (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996. is the version I have used here for my quotes), The Martian Chronicles
  • Orson Scott CardEnder’s Game
  • Arthur C. ClarkeChildhood’s End
  • Ernest Cline Ready Player One
  • Philip K. DickDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  • Cory DoctorowLittle Brother
  • Robert HeinleinStranger in a Strange Land
  • Frank Herbert – Dune
  • Aldous HuxleyBrave New World
  • Ursula LeGuinThe Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, A Wizard of Earths
  • Madeleine L’Engle – A Wrinkle in Time Quintet (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, Many Waters, A Ring of Endless Light, An Acceptable Time)
  • Lois Lowry – The Giver Series (The Giver, Gathering Blue, The Messenger, Son)
  • Cormac McCarthyThe Road
  • George Orwell!984
  • Veronica Roth – The Divergent Series (Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant)
  • Kurt Vonnegut  “Harrison Bergeron,” Slaughterhouse Five
  • Andy Weir – The Martian

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