With a new TV adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 coming up, I reread the slim novel which is still as engaging as it is open to interpretation.
While the discussions of liberal v conservative values espoused by the book have been extensively analysed elsewhere, I was struck by how much of the book matches with Minimalist and Slow values.
I’ve quoted some passages from the novel which highlight themes commonly addressed in minimalism and Slow.
1. Create rather than just consume
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.”
We need consumers. You are consuming these words right now. I will read a few articles and posts today myself. But Fahrenheit 451 shows us a world of only consumption, and consumption of only the most unchallenging and banal content.
2. Lack of contentment with material possessions and distraction
“I don’t know. We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren’t happy. Something’s missing. I looked around. The only thing I positively knew was gone was the books I’d burned in ten or twelve years. So I thought books might help.”
Montag reaches out for a book in a desperate search for meaning. He and Mildred don’t even remember how and when they met. Even their own lives are forgotten as unimportant.
3. The Hedonic treadmill
“It’s really fun. It’ll be even more fun when we can afford to have the fourth wall installed. How long you figure before we save up and get the fourth wall torn out and a fourth wall-TV put in? It’s only two thousand dollars.”
“That’s one-third of my yearly pay.”
“It’s only two thousand dollars,” she replied. “And I should think you’d consider me sometimes. If we had a fourth wall, why it’d be just like this room wasn’t ours at all, but all kinds of exotic people’s rooms. We could do without a few things.”
“We’re already doing without a few things to pay for the third wall. It was put in only two months ago, remember?”
“Is that all it was?” She sat looking at him for a long moment.
Mildred wants a new “wall” TV and asks her husband for it several times in the early part of the novel. Not only can they not afford it, Mildred has already forgotten the most recent upgrade to their home entertainment which was. She has adjusted back to a state of wanting instead of being grateful for what she has.
4. Slow living
“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 neighbours.’ Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.”
In the pursuit of minimalism, sometimes we can be too minimal. A podcast played at 1.5 speed to save time. An article summary instead of the article. Sometimes we have to acknowledge that though it takes a bit longer, the journey is part of the knowledge.
5. Mass culture lacks complexity
“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 levelled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me?”
Here Bradbury is challenging the idea that pop culture should be inoffensive at all costs, and so it is the more mass the cultural object is intended to be. A 10-episode run on HBO has far more space to be divisive than a 22-episode network program. Film, TV, books, and comics can entertain but also challenge. But not if they want to keep the maximum amount of people blissfully lulled. To push is to push away part of your audience.
“My uncle says there used to be front porches. And people sat there sometimes at night, talking when they wanted to talk, rocking, and not talking when they didn’t want to talk. Sometimes they just sat there and thought about things, turned things over. My uncle says the architects got rid of the front porches because they didn’t look well. But my uncle says that was merely rationalizing it; the real reason, hidden underneath, might be they didn’t want people sitting like that, doing nothing, rocking, talking; that was the wrong kind of social life. People talked too much. And they had time to think. So they ran off with the porches.”
And so Bradbury critiques something he saw going wrong. Some interviews later in his life show just how horrified he was at the continuing of this trend through technology and lifestyle. I live in a suburban house and every nearby home has a patio. And yet most days that I sit on ours I enjoy the quiet that comes from the large proportion of my neighbors staying inside and leaving their outdoor spaces unused. How long before designers drop the pretense entirely?
Thank for reading.