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In which John yells in an airport while discussing the so-called information society, the proliferation of public television screens, and devices of distraction. This is my response to the second half of Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451, which the nerdfighter book club read this summer. Also quoted is David Foster Wallace's excellent if totally unfinished novel The Pale King.


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A Bunny
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Crowd: Good morning, Hank, it's Tuesday.

John Green: It's actually Sunday, but it will be Tuesday in the fullness of time. Hank, as you can tell from the grey speckled walls behind me, in a stunning turn of events, I have found myself in an airport. And as it happens, this airport offers its visitors, or as some would say, attacks its visitors with, an astonishing number of televisions. And that makes me want to talk about the last half of Ray Bradbury's novel, Fahrenheit 451.

So the second half of Fahrenheit 451 is often criticized for the deus ex machina arrival of Professor Faber, and also for its like, really overwrought symbols. And, fair enough, you know, like when Granger wants to build a mirror factory at the end of the novel, it's hard to tell whether he's literally serious. I mean, we've experienced tremendous depopulation and instability. We shall build a mirror factory! And then we will work on food and shelter!

Bu-bu-bu-but Hank, I still love this novel. By the way, the people in the airport think that I'm crazy. I love this novel because it's a book that as Professor Faber says of a different book, can go under the microscope. They want me to be quiet, but I feel passionate about this. For Professor Faber, and I would assume, for Ray Bradbury, it is those stories, the ones that can hold up to microscopic observation, that can fill us up and can fill us in. Those are the stories that make us feel as Montag is always trying to feel, more alive.

Also, Hank, I love when Montag says, 'Nobody listens anymore. I can't even talk to the walls because they're yelling at me.' And sitting here in the airport today waiting for my delayed flight, I've become keenly aware that we literally do live in a world of shouty walls. And if that isn't distracting enough, my phone contains the voices of billions on Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook. But Montag is right when he says that nobody feels listened to, because too often, we don't listen to those voices on Twitter or Tumblr or Facebook, we just use them for distraction.

So, Hank, for a long time I've been arguing that the solution to the problem of living a superficially distractive life is books. But I think I was wrong, and I'm not saying that just because I did recently read 50 Shades of Grey. I've always argued that books, because they don't lend themselves to multi-tasking, are better equipped to force us to be quiet and contemplative and engaged, but in fact, I don't think that medium matters. As Professor Faber puts it, take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, in old motion pictures, and in old friends. Look for it in nature, and look for it in yourself.

Now, admittedly, the 'it' in question is never really defined, but I think that 'it' is the ideas that offer us sustenance and intellectual engagement. And here's the problem, Hank, almost by definition, those stories, whether they're in books or on TV or in movies or on YouTube, aren't distracting. Or at least, they're not AS distracting as like, kittens on Rumbas or CSI or Die Hard 9.

Now, that's not some statement to say that we should all be listening to Beethoven instead of The Mountain Goats, it's worth noting that Ray Bradbury wrote this book in a genre, science fiction, that is not traditionally associated with high culture ideas.

Anyways, Hank, all of this reminded me of something that David Foster Wallace wrote in his unfinished novel, The Pale King. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that's dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient, low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all of our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly, or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing's pretty confusing and hard to talk about abstractly, but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore, but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarket checkouts, airport gates, SUV backseats, Walkman, iPods, Blackberries, cell phones that attach to your head, this terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can't think anyone really believes that today's so-called 'information society' is just about information. Everyone knows that it's about something else way down. The truth is, Hank, 99.9% of the time I check my phone, it's not because I'm so busy I can't do it later, it's because on some level or another, I fear feeling that deeper type of omnipresent pain, that Wallace was writing about, and in order to be engaged, you have to first overcome that fear of engagement. It's also true of romance, now that I think about it. Ultimately, for me, Hank, Fahrenheit 451 isn't about censorship or the evils of television or building mirror factories, it's about what happens when people choose distraction over engagement, and for me, it was a real wake up call. So thank you for the suggestion. We are boarding the plane, YES! I will see you on Friday.