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In the early 1950s, Ray Bradbury sat with a typewriter in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library and clattered out a book called “Fahrenheit 451“. It described a future where books are burned by firemen and the only sort of books that are allowed to survive are comic books (they’re too shallow and stupid to really matter, we are told). A little more than fifty years later, Bradbury gave his blessings to a graphic novel version of “Fahrenheit 451“. The evolved brain’s comic book has Bradbury’s vote of confidence. Sadly, if Sarah Boxer is to be believed, the graphic novel version does precisely what comic books have been accused of for years: butchering the story.

“In the graphic-novel version of Fahrenheit 451, almost all of the words are spoken. Even the pictures confirm that the novel has become a script. Montag is drawn in deep, spooky shadow, as if he were telling his tale out loud, by a bonfire or with a flashlight under his chin. And this only deepens the irony, for Fahrenheit 451 seems to be just as much against movies, theater, and television as it is against comic books.”

Bradbury is clearly not against graphic novels (which is most excellent) and he wasn’t anti movies, despite the sentiments voiced in the novel. He was supposedly pretty thrilled when François Truffaut decided to make a film of “Fahrenheit 451” in 1966. I saw the film before I read the book and I thought it was the most brilliant thing that I’d come across in my ten-year-old life (ok, maybe not the most brilliant; that honour was reserved for Roald Dahl, I think). Those random numbers that sat so innocently on the cover turned into something terribly frightening. I remember looking up at the walls lined with books and imagining them explode into flames. It was just downright scary, especially when you held a book in your hand and realised how fragile it was. Just tearable paper and breakable binding, all made up of horribly flammable materials. I decided that I was going to memorise books too, just like the kid from Granger’s gang at the end of the movie. That project ended up to be a little more frightening than watching “Fahrenheit 451” because I realised I have the memory of a doorknob. The process of trying to remember “James and the Giant Peach” scrambled my small brain and finally, to stop me from hurtling towards nervous breakdown, my parents sat me down and explained to me that, while we did live bang on the equator at the time, the chances of the temperature shooting up that high was a little unlikely. Plus, the whole point of Bradbury writing something like “Fahrenheit 451” was to make sure such ghastly things didn’t happen. Books were going nowhere, my father assured me.

Much like his assurances that gin is good for an upset tummy and scotch on the rocks will cure colds, this one was a tad bit inaccurate. Because everyone tells me the book is gone. It’s all a quick download, baby. Hook up your wi-fi and there’s your book: compact, virtual, convenient, unaffected by whether you hold the “book” with sauce-smudged hands and utterly devoid of life. And the fact that Amazon decided to name its e-book reader “Kindle” gives me the chills. Clearly whoever named the damned thing had not read “Fahrenheit 451”. This time, the temperature doesn’t even have to rise a single degree. One quick electronic swipe and books will be lost, the way “1984” was recently thanks to an error on Amazon’s part. Add to that the rumours that the internet era has led to increasingly low attention spans and this means that memorising isn’t an option either. Also, the oral tradition is great for the survival of stories but not necessarily literature. Eventually, someone will add a smidgeon of their subjectivity to the style in which the tale is told and the storytelling changes. A touch here, a touch there and  before you know it, the plot may be the same but the book may be nothing like what the author originally intended. After all, the Ramayana of northern India didn’t begin as the story of Ram. Vashishtha’s tale was known as the biography of the sage Pulastya’s grandson, Ravana. Precisely how or when the hero/anti-hero became the villain of the piece, we don’t know but I do wonder just how happy the original author would be if he knew what his tale has become and what it stands for today.

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9 thoughts on “Burning question

  1. Wow, I really never thought about the fact that it would be incredibly easy to wipe out thousands or millions of pieces of literature if we were to convert to strictly electronic book publication. That’s terrifying…and the irony of the name Kindle is a little to ironic. Great post.

  2. the only use i can think of for these electrobooks is for taking on holiday, which would half the weight of my packing. other than that, i shudder.

    so true about the way stories change with retelling – listening to someone else tell one of mine was really weird. different emphasis, characters alter…..

    we need to start a revolution in favour of real books….

    • The convenience of the e-format is unquestionable. I mean, you should see the state of my shelves. But still, I just find the kindle way too scary. It’s great for stuff that you only want to read once though. Stuff like “Twilight”, I imagine.

  3. I think your father was right when he said books are not running away anywhere. They are not — no matter how many Carsons make books called End of Print!

    • It’s sad, bad news for future writers. Looking up words in the dictionary is a wonderful discipline and I don’t think dictionary.com is a reasonable alternative.

      • Well there are pros and cons for either option, but indeed a physical dictionary should be indispensable for all writers. All writers should have some form of a relationship with an actual dictionary. The sad thing is for the sake of convenience, I haven’t owned or used a real dictionary in a LONG time.

        However, I, like most of my peers, use m-w.com which is a fine resource. My only complaint with that is that the pronunciation audio files only do American received pronunciation. Yet, if you want both British and American pronunciation, freedictionary.com is quite reliable. It also has several helpful tabs for translation (better than babelfish, have you still been using that? :D), a wikipedia tab to explains word etymologies and various little thingmajigs (historical tidbits/factoids) that are quirky, entertaining and informative.

        I never mastered the International Phonetic Transcription key employed by most physical dictionaries as an explanatory tool. They were ambiguous and rarely intuitive.

        Wow, your blog totally consumed a good part of my workday, but good job!

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