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Uploaded:2012-07-10
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In which John discusses Part 1 of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, "The Hearth and the Salamander," including discussions of Guy Montag, Clarisse, the complicated relationship between technology and nature, and more. Huzzah for the Nerdfighter Book Club!

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Good morning, Hank; it's Tuesday. Let's talk about the first part of Fahrenheit 451, the famous temperature at which love boils. No, it's the temperature at which books burn? So Fahrenheit 451 introduces us to Guy Montag, who's just a regular guy. He's a fireman, he likes to fill his fire hose up with kerosene and then spew it all over books and burn them to maintain social stability, he hangs out with other firemen and a mechanized dog who is both alive and dead, and then afterword he goes home to his house, which is likened to a mausoleum. I match the wall, by the way; that's probably not good. I'll try to stay over here so you know that I have a torso. Anyway, his wife Mildred is also described as both alive and dead. She spends her days and nights listening to and watching mindless entertainment. And she attempts suicide but she is saved by this mechanical snake-like thing that goes into her belly and sucks out all the poison. That snake, incidentally - also described as both alive and dead. In fact, everything is both alive and dead in Fahrenheit 451. When an old woman makes it clear that she'd rather die than live without her books, the fire captain Beatty says, 'The people in those books never lived.' But of course the people in this book never really live, either! Mildred lives vicariously through this entertainment that's so mindless that five minutes later she can't even remember what it was about. The firemen just live for the cheap thrill of watching things burn. Mildred and Guy can't even remember how they met! At one point, these fighter jets blow past and Montag is described as feeling as if those jets pulverized the stars. I think the message is pretty clear there, Hank. Technology has pulverized our nature. But of course Montag is shaken out of his life thinking little at all about nothing in particular by Clarisse, this beautiful teenager who sees everything Clear-isse-ly. She literally reminds Montag about the natural world - she smells like apricots, her face is like snow in the moonlight. But she also re-introduces Montag to the world of nature and natural experience, eventually literally making him taste the rain. Incidentally 'taste the rain' would be a great euphemism, but I don't know for what. Maybe it would be a good catch-phrase if I ever become like a professional wrestler named The Rain. Like 'Get ready to taste The Rain!' It's not good; I'm not going to become a professional wrestler. I need to just accept it. And then, of course, after Guy tastes the rain Clarisse disappears, presumably dead, in the great tradition of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she's already changed him. And he is collecting books that he ought to be burning which threatens not just his career as a firefighter but also, you know, his life. So, Hank, one of the weird things about dystopian fiction is that it has a way of coming true. So I just want to establish right now that if there is ever a Hunger Games, I will not be volunteering as tribute on your behalf. And Fahrenheit 451 is perhaps the most dramatic example of this in our literature. So let's have some historical context. Ray Bradbury wrote this book in a library on a typewriter that cost 20 cents an hour to rent. Which might be why it's so short. He also wrote it in a time when mass media didn't really have that much mass. At the time, only about a million American households had televisions, and for several hours each day in most markets, literally nothing was on TV because presumably they didn't have Simpsons reruns yet. Today, of course, the average American watches 150 hours of TV each month and in the average American household, just like Guy Montag's house, there are more TVs than people. We also go outside far less than we did in Bradbury's day, and when we do go outside we often insert these little machines into our ears so we can hear more interesting sounds than birdsong. Now we don't burn books but we do read fewer of them every year. Bradbury predicted all of these changes and he also predicted that the change, if I may quote Captain Beatty, 'didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no!' We made the world in which we live, not some all-powerful Other. So Hank it seems to me that Fahrenheit 451 is an old-fashioned novel of ideas like Jonathan Livingston's Seagull or The Fountainhead, and usually those books really annoy me because they're not really about book-burning firemen, they're really about the perils and privileges of technology or whatever. But here, even though I do find the character of Clarisse totally unconvincing, I really love this book because it is profoundly unsettling. Have we replaced intellectual engagement with superficial browsing? Is it really possible to pay sustained attention in a world full of distractions, a world where we can watch an episode of CSI and three months later watch it again and not be sure if we've seen it before? Actually, let me put that question a different way. When do you feel least like you are wasting your life? Maybe that's different for everyone. Like, I'm not Clarisse. I like nature but it doesn't make me feel particularly alive. It mostly makes me feel super conscious of the fact that mosquitoes carry the West Nile Virus. For me, I feel most alive when I'm having conversations with family and friends about stuff that matters to me. Like now, for instance. This is making me feel alive. I don't know what you thought of the book or what makes your life feel meaningful, but I'd like to know. I'd like to continue the conversation so I can continue to feel alive and not like Guy Montag. So Nerdfighters I'll see you in comments and Hank, I will see you on Friday. Oh, hey, P.S.- The new episode of Crash Course: World History is about the surprisingly complicated and fascinating story of slavery. Also last week I did the cinnamon challenge while discussing the Colombian Exchange, so check that out. You can click the screen now but not any later than now because the video's gonna end.