Remembrance of Books Past
February 4, 2004 7:19 AM   Subscribe

Remembrance of Books Past, by Ray Bradbury
"Why not a sequel to 'Fahrenheit 451' in which all the great books are remembered by the Wilderness People and are finally reprinted from memory. What then?"
"Wouldn't it be," he continued, "that all would be misremembered, none would come forth in their original garb? Wouldn't they be longer, shorter, taller, fatter, disfigured, or more beautiful? "
[if possible, use the Wall Street Journal link - subsription required]
posted by MzB (24 comments total)
Great link, MzB. A very thoughtful article.
posted by adrianhon at 7:32 AM on February 4, 2004

[make that subscription required - stupid JRun error]
Susan Ohanian's web site is the only one that has a free copy of the WSJ article. Please be gentle.
posted by MzB at 7:33 AM on February 4, 2004

Great idea, but I wouldn't be able to do it - all the non-children's books Bradbury mentioned, I've never read. (I have read all the Oz books several times, though, so there. Oh, and Huckleberry Finn, of course.) In other words, my "memory" of them is what has seeped in through various pop-culture references already. It would be a little redundant, I'm afraid.

Oh, and I loved this:

Mr. Bradbury is the author of "Fahrenheit 451," among other books.

Well, um, yeah, you could say that.

posted by soyjoy at 7:51 AM on February 4, 2004

Perhaps Bradbury is too focused. While it is the main theme of "Fahrenheit 451", many questions beyond censorship abound.

To explain, for example, in the book "1984", two questions were left unanswered: "What if 'Big Brother' happened and nobody but a tiny group objected, it being so gradual and normal that everyone adjusted to it?"; and, "Where does 'Big Brother' go from here?"

In other words, "1984" was shocking only because it was so different, *back then*. Today, it's the status quo, and nobody gets much excited about it. Plus, government has and continues to go *beyond* "1984", enough to make you wonder how many people just sit around all day, thinking up new ways to dehumanize others.

In "451", the *philosophy* of the government is underdescribed. We know it strongly censors, and that it lies to the public with "infotainment". In fact, it is almost a "Government of Hollywood". And last but not least, we know that Guy Montag's city was destroyed at the end.

But though it is *implied* that almost everyone lives in the cities, is that true? Are there large rural areas that are uninhabited, unpoliced and unpopulated? Or is there something more?

Another obvious question: does the bomb *end* the war, or is it just the *start* of the war? Assuming that there are lots of survivors who can no longer live in the cities, do they go into the countryside, bringing their evil government with them? Wouldn't it be ironic that even though he is opposed to censorship, Montag sees the *invaders* as more evil, and joins the resistance?
posted by kablam at 8:12 AM on February 4, 2004

These are good questions, kablam. Someone needs to tie Bradbury to a desk, shake his head loose of all the obsession with how the folks would remember the books, and make him write Fahrenheit 452!
posted by soyjoy at 8:23 AM on February 4, 2004

This is of course how "books" used to be stored. Lots of them, such as the OT, the Illiad, etc., seem to have ended up as a combination of many earlier works. I'd like to think that maybe there would be some incredible meta-novel to arise out of the last few centuries' best novels, for example.
posted by callmejay at 8:36 AM on February 4, 2004

Of course, all memory works this way. Distorting, recombining, refreshing, connecting in new ways, leaving bits out, putting bits in. Everything we know is like a misremembered book, and yet, somehow, it works.
posted by rushmc at 8:53 AM on February 4, 2004

Well, some say memory is holographic; that no matter how blurry or unclear the memory, there is still a seed of truth in it...
posted by Samizdata at 9:27 AM on February 4, 2004

Any data has some relationship with truth, even if it is an inverse one.
posted by rushmc at 9:53 AM on February 4, 2004

soyjoy: sounded a little sarcastic; however, I needed to explain further. "451" has influenced a generation of sci-fi writers. And while I haven't read of any sequel-type offering to that *particular* police state, a bunch come to mind that *could* have been other slices from that same government.

One good story, in 'Analog', I think, was of a man condemned to death, with an implant in his head that summoned four walls and a ceiling to form a box around him--his only escape was to travel at least 10 miles every day--on foot in the countryside, and to never sleep indoors.
Again, almost everybody lived in the cities.

Another similar place had the government mine "vitality", some essential element in human blood, from average people, to be given to its elites--giving them strength, health, longevity and creativity.

Yet another had all babies implanted with explosives near their hearts, and if they ever ran out of money--pow!

I'm sure most of us have read lots of horrific government stories in the past. I'm just guessing about influences.
But the point remains, both of Bradbury's influence on other writers, and the "flesh" that is needed on Montag's police state.

What were their motives? Their history? Why did they hate literacy so much? What if they had events so horrific in their past, "caused" by *a* book, in their minds, that it was worth it to them to destroy all books just to wipe out that one? Would that book be Mein Kampf?
posted by kablam at 10:26 AM on February 4, 2004

I interviewed Ray Bradbury in late 2001 for the Thousand Oaks Weekly Acorn, and asked him if the book's theme of censorship was relevant to post-9/11 America.

He replied that profanity in movies was a much more serious problem; that he and his wife had quit moviegoing in disgust after seeing Saturday Night Fever; and that he was a big fan of what Bush was doing for literacy.

His favorite authors working today: George Will and Buckley.

I went back to re-read "Fahrenheit 451." You can project a lot of ideas into the book that aren't really there. What I found wasn't the 1984-ish book I remembered, but a work by a young curmudgeon bitching about the fact that people watch TV instead of talk on the porch, and that minority groups (whether ethnic or religious) get offended by things they read.

Punctuating this was a new epilogue, written in the '90s, bitching about campus minority groups asking him to include more people of color in his books.
posted by inksyndicate at 10:44 AM on February 4, 2004

What I always wondered is, who gets to memorize the really shitty books? If you're going to preserve the legacy of mankind, some peon has to memorize a crappy romance novel.
posted by inksyndicate at 10:51 AM on February 4, 2004

For the record, kablam, I was completely sincere (except maybe about the title) in agreeing with your points and wishing for a sequel to address them. But I can see how my posting history might lead you to assume otherwise.
posted by soyjoy at 10:53 AM on February 4, 2004

More on the right-wing Ray:

"Asked if laws like The Patriot Act or the conservative machinations of the current administration make him wary, Bradbury says he sees no danger from our governmental figureheads these days. 'There's nothing going on now that needs to be attacked. There's no censorship, there's no book burning, there's no Red-hunting. There's nothing like that going on now.'"
posted by inksyndicate at 11:06 AM on February 4, 2004

Bradbury's own opinions aside (and "451" has a life of its own, independent of the author's intent; the same can be said of "1984"), the more interesting exercise would be to take two or more "book people" with differing backgrounds and biases and have them both/all memorize the same book and replay back their own versions of it, altered by their own internal "filters". Imagine some of MeFi's more notable 'personalities' doing that... And the first book to do that to is so obvious: "Fahrenheit 451".

inksyndicate, I so envy you; regardless of how unpleasantly surprising his responses were, I always wanted to interview Ray Bradbury, and you've already asked several of the best questions on my list.
posted by wendell at 11:42 AM on February 4, 2004


I agree with you about 451 having a life of its own. In my mind there's a more ideal "451" that may not quite be what Bradbury intended. (It may also be mixed up with the crappy Apple II game/sequel from the mid-'80s). Mainly the book's atmosphere is potent and awesome, whereas the philosophy in it is kinda thin.

Bradbury was really crotchety when I talked to him. He kinda goes on autopilot and starts boasting about how many different projects he's still involved in, including planning a retro mall in L.A., stage productions, etc.

In every interview I've read, he pulls out a one-liner about early comics catapulting him into space, and then never looking back. Except he does, because everything I've read by him in the last 10 years is about Halloween monsters or Hollywood and never about space.
posted by inksyndicate at 12:16 PM on February 4, 2004

He replied that profanity in movies was a much more serious problem; that he and his wife had quit moviegoing in disgust after seeing Saturday Night Fever; and that he was a big fan of what Bush was doing for literacy.

Good Christ. Yet another writer I've lost all respect for.
*resolves not to read about any more writers*
posted by languagehat at 12:22 PM on February 4, 2004

soyjoy: no, really, a little sarcasm was appropriate, judging from my first post (as how I interpreted the "452" comment, a gentle jibe.) Also, the word "sequel", though proper, has a slightly negative connotation due to Hollywood. And yet it *would* be a good idea in this case.

But it starts the mind spinning, what direction would a sequel take?

I forget who said that sci-fi stories always reflect the "time" and culture in which they were written, no matter what future they try to predict. 1953, when he wrote it, was the year the Korean War ended and Joseph Stalin died. My, how things change.

What would Montag's nation be like 50 years later?
posted by kablam at 12:29 PM on February 4, 2004

I've read them both twice, and I like The Martian Chronicles much better than Fahrenheit 451. Like inksyndicate says, Fahrenheit is really not so 1984-ish and when it does try to be a bit political, I think it fails. The Martian Chronicles is much more pure storytelling and more compelling to me.

On preview: I try not to read about indie musicians too much for the same reason.
posted by Utilitaritron at 12:30 PM on February 4, 2004

Best (unauthorized) Ray Bradbury adaption: The last scene of John Carpenter's Dark Star. Also, Bradbury deserves props for the pro-library carnival-phobia book Something Wicked, that was great. (He didn't seem bothered by Ashcroft snooping on libraries, though)
posted by inksyndicate at 12:35 PM on February 4, 2004

I went back to re-read "Fahrenheit 451." You can project a lot of ideas into the book that aren't really there.

That's always been my take on the book, which I find pretty overrated. But I'm a lukewarm Bradbury fan in general.

the more interesting exercise would be to take two or more "book people" with differing backgrounds and biases and have them both/all memorize the same book and replay back their own versions of it, altered by their own internal "filters". Imagine some of MeFi's more notable 'personalities' doing that... And the first book to do that to is so obvious: "Fahrenheit 451".

Isn't that exactly what we're doing when we reference the book in this thread, only relying upon memories of less fidelity than "memorization" (and perfect memorization is not what you're calling for in any case, since you are interested in the changes that would crop up, which wouldn't exist with perfect recollections)? Surely divergent opinions are partly shaped by divergent recall.
posted by rushmc at 12:57 PM on February 4, 2004

I think the most prophetic thing in Fahrenheit 451 is the wall TV that Guy Montag's dullard wife watches all week long. It's The Sims and reality TV wrapped up into one.

The really memorable thing about the book is this vision of a society of brutal philistines who watch "The Real World" and run over animals and people for fun (shades of Great Gatsby)
posted by inksyndicate at 1:21 PM on February 4, 2004

Interesting note: I mentioned this thread to a scholarly friend, and he told me the following:

Back around 500 BC, the works of Homer were entirely oral and memorized in a purely oral tradition. Somebody got together everyone they could find who had memorized his works and wrote down each account, justifying differences.

But that wasn't the only glitch. Prior to then, for political reasons, one section of the Iliad, "The Catalogue of Ships", kept getting larger and larger, as every nobleman wanted inclusion of one of his ancestors in the story.

Ironically, though this makes the Iliad less like the original, it gives some insight into the period between Homer and 500 BC.
posted by kablam at 4:03 PM on February 4, 2004

Yet another writer I've lost all respect for.

This is part of the reason I mostly read dead authors - they'll never change and let you down.

Maybe it should be required by law that people are dead before they're allowed to become famous?
We'd have to kill those already famous, of course - starting with Brittney.
posted by spazzm at 4:37 AM on February 5, 2004

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