The Target of the Well-read Man
Del Ray, 1992
ISBN: 978 0345342 966
Ray Bradbury’s brain scares me. I mean that in a nice way of course, but it took me a really long time to get back into his writing after I read Something Wicked This Way Comes when I was about thirteen or so. I totally thought that I’d outgrown the whole nightmare thing – “Ha!” Thirteen-Year-Old Me said, “nightmares are for babies!” – but it would seem that I am not immune to the powerful power of the Dust Witch. Even typing those words gives me the goosebumps.
However, about a year or maybe a little longer than that ago, I read that Ray Bradbury was “riding out”, as the Guardian put it, in defence of libraries (you can also read a piece that the New York Times came out with around the same period). “Well,” Present-day Me said to herself, “that’s very nice of him, but it’s no more than I would expect of any author… I mean, der, libraries buy books.” Whoa, was that presumptuous. I had not just underestimated the sheer volume of love that Ray Bradbury has for libraries, but attributed a kind of cruel and mercenary reason for that love. Why all this blithering about libraries, you ask? Hey, it turns out that I’m a librarian. Who would have thunk it? This post is so not about libraries though – I’m currently studying towards my masters, so I’m thinking, breathing, eating and sleeping libraries, and I really don’t want it to infect this blog as well. It’s the last library-free bastion of one-sided conversation for me.
Anyway, so let me tell you about this wonderful book. Truly, if you haven’t read it yet, and you feel even remotely passionate about information and the way that it is disseminated, or the dumbing down of the media, or maybe you just really like future shock style SF writing, I would say, why the hell haven’t you read this book yet? Seriously. Dude. And then I’d shake my head in wonderment, which would carefully mask the fact that I’ve only recently finished it. Heh heh heh. Deviousness, thy name is Lola. The story is set in a future (well, it’s our past, but you just skip over those bits – kinda like reading 1984) where every form of communication is strictly controlled, and the populace has chosen happiness over information. Does it sound familiar? Little bit, right? It basically follows a ‘fireman’, Guy Montag, who with his fireman cronies, goes about burning books and the houses of the people who cling to them like the old relics that they are. Guy harbours a deep and, to him, disturbing feeling that something isn’t right with the society that he lives in – his wife habitually attempts suicide by overdose, and he just as habitually, calls the medics to bring her back from the brink of death. He eventually suffers a crisis of faith, if you like, and rejects violently the societal norm, burning his own house (where he’s been harbouring books – there is an acutely awful scene in the book, where Montag is forcing his wife to listen to him read, often the same passage over and over again as he tries to puzzle out the meaning, and his wife is getting more and more distressed.
There are strong overtones of the same kind of feeling that I get from reading the part of Brave New World where John Savage flings the soma which is being doled out to the Epsilon Minuses after their hard days work about, yelling “Mewling and puking! Mewling and puking!”. Montag comes into contact with an old English teacher named Faber, who is too scared to be a rebel himself, but encourages Montag to throw himself on the pyre, as it where. I have to say that Faber is my least favourite character in the book, probably because he most reminds me of the how tragic it is that there are loads of people (myself included) who can see how bad things can get, but either through their own passivity or not wanting to “rock the boat” or whatever, the excuses are legion, will not stand up when society is making a damn fool of itself. Actually, he reminds me quite a bit of Bernard Marx, who sees himself as an outsider, but is quite happy to accept the bounties of the society that he lives in when that society choses to throw him a bone. Faber isn’t as desperately awful as Bernard, but it’s the same sort of principle, at least to me.
So what more can I say? It’s a really great book, with some really interesting ideas. It actually feels a lot more current to me than Brave New World, I think just because… well, it’s set in suburbia for one thing, and what person living in an urban environment isn’t familiar with that location now? When I was reading the passages with Guy and Clarisse walking around the neighbourhood in the night, with the moon shining down on them and the houses asleep and quiet and dark, it was the sleepy suburb that I grew up in that I was imagining these two walking around in. There are a lot of things which are still an issue for us now, as much as they were beginning to rear their heads in the 1950’s when Ray Bradbury was writing this novel; the control of information, the dissociation of people from each other, the alienation and belittling of people through the media. Above all, and not to get too ridiculously soppy about it, but Guy Montag made me feel like I could make a difference, even if it was just to play the Faber to someone else’s Guy. It’s never as hopeless as it looks.