Yesterday I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 again for the first time since social media became a factor in my life. When I first read Fahrenheit, probably early in middle school, television still seemed to be the greatest threat to interest in good books. What’s jarring is that on this second read, I realize that in the years since my first encounter with the book, society has sped up and grown even more immersed in a digital world.
“Seashells,” as Bradbury calls the inserts in his characters’ ears, have become ubiquitous on the streets and subways. The “parlor walls” of screens don’t line rooms but travel everywhere in people’s pockets and before their eyes, including mine. More and more people live in their own virtual universes, as does Mildred, the wife of the main character Guy Montag.
I don’t necessarily want to return to an age before social media opened up so many connections around the world for me. Rather, I want to make sure I remember what life was like before the news feed. Seventeen-year-old Clarisse McClellan is the youngest named character in Fahrenheit, but she remembers, and tries to think, the most. “Are you happy?” she asks Montag. “Do you notice how people hurt each other nowadays?” she says of joyriders.
Her confidence and questioning awake Montag from a haze. I wonder how much, then, I have been living under a cloud. The world around me is changing so quickly that the pace seems to erase memories. Between the time I first read Fahrenheit to yesterday, my brain feels re-wired. I know less when I cannot remember.
It’s easier to live in a constant stream of information and never look at the source of the ideas that have been preserved in books over the centuries. Montag’s boss Captain Beatty explains why firemen in Fahrenheit 451 began to burn books: “They were given 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. … Don’t give [people] 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 to slide rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely.”
On that basis, to live without grappling with the history and nature of human existence is to live in ignorance, without the truth. I think some of the best books, movies and conversations try to make sense of that struggle. Once I try to understand more, the more I realize how little I know. So I am forced to read more. A quote I’ve seen attributed to French novelist Gustave Flaubert says: “Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.”
In the flood of things to learn I am trying harder to take notes on life, to synthesize and to reflect. In this regard Facebook is helpfully showing me posts from two years and five years ago. I can find my college Instagram posts and go down a memory lane of study sessions by looking at YouTube music playlists.
It’s not enough to have stacks of notes. Fahrenheit ends with almost a call to pass on the ideas in books, until people “come round in their own time, wondering what happened and why the world blew up under them,” says Granger, the leader of the small group Montag escapes to, who are trying to preserve books by holding memorized passages in their heads.
Granger adds later that the group is not important, unless future book readers learn from past mistakes. “Even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn’t use what we got out of them. We went right on insulting the dead. We went right on spitting in the graves of all the poor ones who died before us.”
I want to remember and learn about histories of people who struggled through the same existence called life. I want to hold many things in my head at once and retain the wisdom I was told as a child. I want to remember what last weekend was like. I want to know what happened last month, last year, twenty years, two hundred years ago at this time. If I cannot remember, I will lose the ability to discern.