We lost a great writer this week when Ray Bradbury passed away at age 91. I haven’t been acquainted with his writing for long, having just discovered him in 2011, but I was blown away by the prophetic views of society that I found in his writings.
My favourite book by far (from the works that I have read) is Fahrenheit 451. Its hard for me to fathom how, in 1953, Ray saw so clearly where our civilization was headed. We haven’t outlawed books just yet, but there are certainly lots of people who are trying to censor what we read and to decree what libraries ought to own and lend. It amazes me that we are still fighting this battle—that the concept of the free market place of ideas hasn’t been won yet. So many of the proponents of censorship are also supporters of free enterprise—they believe in the principle for business, but not for the rest of life! And certainly not in the realm of ideas! The current stir over the novel Fifty Shades of Gray is just one example. Ironically, this is what the free marketplace of ideas is all about—debating the ideas as a society and eventually choosing the ones with the most merit. As we have done with issues like slavery, sexism and cruelty. While the censors have the right to present their arguments, they have no right to squash opposing opinions. That’s another tenet of Western society— individuals get to choose what’s right for them. It will always be the right way to do things, but I guess it will always bring out the bigots who want to control others, not just themselves. It’s all about karma—thankfully, history has not been kind to those who espouse censorship [or slavery, sexism or cruelty for that matter].
There are certainly no shortage of people trying to impose their values and morality on the rest of society. Ray understood this human tendency well. In the story The Pedestrian, Leonard Mead is arrested for taking a walk and for not owning a television. He is eventually committed to a mental hospital for these “aberrations.” We are a very tribal species, requiring proof from our members that they adhere to our values. What does it say about our society that I can envision this situation taking place in the not-too-distant future? So few people walk for pleasure any more, we don’t know our neighbours (often on purpose), we are glued to our electronic devices instead of interacting with people around us and many conversations that we do participate in revolve around television programs or internet sensations, rather than books, real ideas or experiences.
Ray predicted the isolation of the individual in our technological society. Households in Fahrenheit 451 possessed enormous televisions and people aspired to own four so as to cover all four walls of their TV rooms and be surrounded by the programming. His fictional people watch incomprehensible shows about a fictional family, and they can pay an extra fee to have their names inserted in some places in the dialog. Rather than spending time with their real families, they basically live passively through a TV family. As I have said before, for me Ray Bradbury was a prophet, predicting ‘reality’ TV extremely accurately. The tribal imperative in this society was enforced through the burning of all books and the persecution of activities such as creating art & music, as well as getting outside to appreciate nature. At least we can read e-books on our myriads of electronic devices, but I suspect most users spend their time in pointless activities instead. I like Facebook as much as the next person, but really isn’t it much more fun to see your friends in person? To hike in the mountains? To listen to great music while cooking dinner?
I hope we never see a future in which books, art & classical music are illegal. I hope we never have to memorize books in order to keep them available. I hope that we can use our electronic devices to foster community and to get to know our friends and relatives better. I hope we rarely choose television over our families. But at least Ray Bradbury caused us to think about these possibilities and to decide if that was what we wanted. Last, but not least, thank you Ray for all the kind things that you said about libraries and the people who work in them. For this and so much more, we appreciate you!