Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is probably one of my favorite science fiction novels. I love it because it is forever poignant, prophetic, and thought-provoking. The novel continually surprises new readers, its words a prophetic clarion call to understand the madness that is the decline of reading. For example:
Is this not the internet-laden culture we experience today? As an American high school teacher I lament the fact that reading has become a "chore" for students, not something that is meant to help us be better people, to broaden our minds, or to help us find joy. Reading is something that a majority of modern American high school students only do on Snapchat or if they are forced. In essence our youth culture is "following the moon tides" because of "more pictures."
Thirty years after Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 he wrote an afterward, a reflection on his novel and what it means to him. In this rich document he outlines five observations about writing that all of us who aspire to write great fiction like Bradbury must take to heart.
- Writing is a Struggle. Bradbury notes in the beginning of his afterward that he wrote the first 25,000 words in 9 days on dime-rental typewriters in his local library. He would put 10 cents in the typewriter and a timer would run for 30 minutes and he had to furiously type away at his novel. All the while he is living hand-to-mouth with his wife and two girls. He reveals that he was "thus...twice driven; by children to leave home, and by a typewriter timing device to be a maniac at the keys" (Bradbury 174). He soldiered on, however, writing probably one of the greatest science fiction novels of the 20th century.
- Writers Love Books. Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in the library, and in between 30 minute intervals would peruse the shelves of the library to be "lost in love, down the corridors, and through the stacks, touching books, pulling volumes out, turning pages, thrusting volumes back, drowning in all the good stuffs that are the essence of libraries" (Bradbury 174). He recounts that he wove those books into the pages of Fahrenheit and has since done that with many of his other short stories. For example, turning "Robert Shaw into a robot, so as to conveniently stow him aboard a rocket and wake him on the long journey to Alpha Centauri to hear his Prefaces piped off his tongue and into my delighted ear" (Bradbury 175). He uses his love of reading great books to inform and enhance his own stories. Makes me want to write my next book in my local library.
- We Have to Write Books People Must Read. Bradbury actually wrote a play based on his novel, and in his afterward he describes a scene he wrote for the play that did not occur in the original novel. The scene takes place in Fire Chief Faber's home where Faber takes Montag into a hidden room filled wall-to-wall with books. Montag exclaims "But you're the chief burner! You can't have books on your premises!". The Chief replies: "It's not owning books that's a crime, Montag, it's reading them. Yes, that's right. I own books, but don't read them" (Bradbury 175). Faber said he used to read, would gnaw "on the bindings" and "carried so many home [he] was hunchbacked for years (Bradbury 176). Montag then presses him, asking him what made him stop reading. Faber replies "Why, life happened to me" (Bradbury 177). Possibly what is happening with readers today is that they get too busy with social media, their kid's soccer games, work or other activities to sit down and enjoy a book. There are too many distractions on Netflix and on television in general to find a silent place to read. Too much noise. Our stories must be so engaging, so interesting, that they draw people to read them. It is a challenge to stop writing mundane drivel and write from our heart with passion and with power. We must make the Fabers of the world want to read our stories.
- Don't Go Back. I know that several times I've wanted to go back and change something I wrote in one of my novels. Bradbury addresses this in his afterward when he discusses Francois Truffaut's film version of Fahrenheit 451. In Truffaut's film, Clarisse is not killed but is seen with the Book People at the end and is reunited with Montag. Bradbury writes: "I felt the same need to save her, for after all, she, verging on silly star-struck chatter, was in many ways responsible for Montag's beginning to wonder about books and what was in them" (Bradbury 178). However, he also notes: "I don't believe in tampering with any young writer's material, especially when that young writer was once myself" (Bradbury 178). The lesson here is that even though he changed the ending for the dramatic version of his book, he didn't want to change what he had written as a younger man. In this digital age it is easy for us to go back and add chapters to a Kindle novel or even to a Createspace pdf, but don't do it. There comes a time when we must leave a document to remain a time capsule of previous writing ability and style. I don't write like I did 10 years ago, and going back to change something I wrote back then would be tampering with my writer's timeline, a mark of my progress. Leave that book where it is in time.
- Brilliance Lies in the Subconscious. Bradbury writes in the final paragraph of the document about what it is like to go back after 30 years and reflect upon his famous novel. He states: "I write all of my novels and stories, as you have seen, in a great surge of delightful passion. Only recently, glancing at the novel, I realized that Montag is named after a paper manufacturing company. And Faber, of course, is a maker of pencils! What a sly thing my subconscious was, to name them thus. And not tell me!" (Bradbury 179). I have discovered that I did things like this in previous novels. The lesson here is that if you have deep passion for the craft your mind will create these lovely connections sometimes without your immediate knowledge. The trick is to write with abandon, give in to the string of nonsense that you think is nonsense at the time. Later, in revision, you will find that you were actually sparking small glimmers of the creative light of the universe.
All quotes taken from:
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451: and Related Readings. McDougal Littell, 2002.