Men With Matches

Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” is a science-fiction classic, whose scene is a future state where books are contraband. No one is allowed to read any or have them in their possession.

The numerals in the title refer to the temperature at which book paper burns. In this society, the firemen don’t put out fires—but start them.

Fahrenheit 451

As surely as the novel is about a culture of supreme anti-intellectualism, manifesting in libricide, it’s also remarkably prescient in forecasting a technology: the advent of a style of headphones.

When Guy Montag, its angst-ridden hero, returns home from his night shift, he finds his wife lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, her ears “tamped tight” with “little Seashells,” the thimble radios,” which, every night, brought “an electronic ocean of sound, of music, and talk” to the “shore of her unsleeping mind.”

When he goes to meet a professor, an intellectual in self-imposed exile, he shows him a gadget he’s clandestinely designed, a “small, green, metal object no larger than a .22 bullet.”

He tells him:

“It listens!” “If you put it in your ear … I can sit comfortably home, warming my frightened bones, and hear and analyze the firemen’s world, find its weaknesses, without danger.”

Bradbury is undoubtedly speaking about the miniaturization of the transistor, a development, which was underway in his day, but unwittingly, he’s also alluding to an invention that Apple would bring into the market about 50 years later: the earbuds.

Could his imagination have been fired by a short feature on a novel pair of tinny headphones, which appeared in the May 1926 issue of the Science and Invention magazine, a science and engineering publication that ran from 1913 from 1931?

“These new midget reproducers,” it wrote, “so light in weight and small in size that they can be placed directly in the outer ear channel” and they will stay there without any “band or clamp.”

“Fahrenheit 451” was released in 1953, a year before U.S. television broadcasts became color. The Fifties witnessed the steady popping up of boxy, cackling sets in American living rooms that came to be the “it” entertainment.

Popular shows like “The “Honeymooners,” “Lassie,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “I Love Lucy,” among others, kept suburban housewives riveted to the small screen, filling their empty hours with raucous laughter and synthetic gaiety.

A standard TV from the Fifties.
A standard TV from the Fifties.

The standard model of the era was the “console TV,” a grayish cathode ray tube and a welter of machinery, fitted into a rectangular cabinet, made of wood or Bakelite. A band-like fabric-grill speaker delivered charmingly grainy sound. They were controlled by only a couple of dials and knobs.

In the novel, it’s portrayed as a noisy monstrosity, wrapped around the four walls of the parlor that provided both an interactive and an immersive experience.

Bradbury satirizes the effect of, what was then, a new mass medium, often mocked as the “idiot box” because of its power, pundits believed, to make people vacuous and enfeeble their imagination and tear them away from reading books.

Mrs. Montag tells her husband:

It’s really fun. It’ll be even more fun when we can afford to have the fourth wall installed.” Books, she doesn’t understand, as they don’t talk to her as the people in the sitcoms do. “They tell me things; I laugh, they laugh! And the colors!

Books, to him, are living and organic. “They fell like slaughtered birds,” when demolished by kerosene and flames. The fire chief explains to him how they came to be killed, as attention spans shrank.

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, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm …

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.

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 … was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: ‘now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.’

The emphasis on sports and the faster pace of life were to blame, too.

More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? … More cartoons in books. More pictures. 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.

A watered-down censorship contributed to the decline.

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 serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere.

With what result?

Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They 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.


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