Twisting Interpretations   Leave a comment

Well that and people bursting into flames.Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite writers whose name is synonymous with one book, Fahrenheit 451, a novel set in a twisted future version of America where books are banned and burned. My dad made me read it when I was 11.The book is well-regarded as a literary classic and it has been studied by academics for decades. I remember reading it in highschool and getting an interpretation that I had not gotten when I read it at age 11. It turns out that I may have understood Bradbury better than the scholars do.

Under “Makes you say ‘hmmm’, some would-be scholars once told Bradbury that he was wrong about his own book. 

 It has long been believed by people studying the novel that it is a clever commentary on censorship. There have been thousands of articles and dissertations written on the subject and I’m not going to dust-off my inner geek and bore you with the details about how academics have interpreted the novel over the years, because they all say the same basic thing. Fahrenheit 451 is a novel about censorship.
Except Ray Bradbury claimed the book wasn’t about censorship at all. You’d think he’d know what the book was about because he wrote it. And, yes, he wrote it during any era when actual book burnings had occurred within recent memory. Still, he always insisted that the main theme of the book is the role of the mass media and its effect on the populace, in particular television and how it makes people less able to digest more complex forms of media, like books.
I find it odd that scholars ignore this as the true theme of the novel, even though the author says that is what he meant. Bradbury himself experienced this slavish adherence to a false doctrine while giving a lecture on the novel to a class of college students. He casually mentioned that the theme of the novel was the dangers of television and someone loudly exclaimed “no, it’s about censorship!“.

Bradbury then tried to correct the student, pointing out that he wrote the novel and ought to know the message he meant to convey, but the rest of the class chimed in and agreed that the novel was about censorship.  Bradbury became so pissed off at the sheer pig-headedness of the students that he walked out of the lecture and vowed he’d never give another lecture on the book.

Sometimes it seems a little unfair to say college students and literary scholars are all full of themselves, but then I remember that a group of them once literally tried to argue with a guy who wrote the book they were studying and made him leave out of frustration when they wouldn’t believe his interpretation of his own book.

I think I know what Bradbury felt like because I feel the same way when I discuss the Bible or the US Constitution with some people. They will insist that the plain language of these documents under discussion does not really mean what I think it means. There’s a more nuanced interpretation that means something entirely different from what the text actually says and only they really understand it. If Jesus Himself were to step back into human history to tell them the real meaning of the Bible, they would insist God didn’t understand His own words. If James Hamilton were able to visit for a day and explain the Constitution to them, they would insist he didn’t know what he was talking about.

Because, hey, we know that scholars know so much more about everything than the actual writers do.


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