This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
Long before “The Hunger Games” portrayed a grim, dystopian future and ignited the imaginations of young readers, there was Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”
It came out in 1953, but it’s as timely today as it was then with its glimpse into a future society in which people are so mesmerized by their big-screen TVs that they no longer read. They’re unconcerned when firemen show up to burn books, which ignite at 451 degrees F.
Bradbury, who died Tuesday at age 91, was significant not only for his uncanny ability to foresee future trends but also for the accessibility of his writing.
For many youngsters, his “Martian Chronicles” collection of stories was their first foray into science fiction. It likely wouldn’t be their last. His darkly poetic “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is a classic fantasy story that influenced the likes of Stephen King (Bradbury himself was a literary descendant of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs). And “Fahrenheit 451” – the 2003 choice for the Tacoma Reads Together program – has long been a standard on school reading lists, its message about the dangers of conformity, anti-literacy and ceding rights in return for security striking a chord with generations of students.
For a science fiction writer, he was something of a Luddite when it came to e-books. Only recently did he allow his books to be released in that format.
Books that you could hold with pages you could turn were sacred objects to Bradbury, and libraries were houses of worship. Growing up in the Depression, he couldn’t afford college; libraries became his institutions of higher education. “The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt,” he said. “I discovered that the library is the real school.”
For this bibliophile, it must have been disheartening in recent years to hear that reading levels had been declining significantly, particularly among young people. But recently, reading rates have ticked back up, reports the National Endowment for the Arts. It attributed the increase to community-based programs like Tacoma Reads Together and Pierce County Reads (their 2012 book selections are W.P. Kinsella’s “Shoeless Joe” and Jamie Ford’s “Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” respectively); popular book series like “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games”; and efforts by teachers, librarians, parents, civic leaders and others to boost reading.
And, with all deference to Bradbury, it could be that the growing popularity of e-readers is having something to do with it. E-book sales now outpace sales of traditional books.
We may spend too much time in front of the big-screen TVs Bradbury foretold back in 1953, but reading hasn’t died out yet. The firemen of “Fahrenheit 451” will just have to cool their jets.