What future for literature? Thinking fondly of “The Book People” in Farenheit 451


Oskar Werner meets with The Book People in “Farenheit 451”

I don’t go to movies often, but at some point in a few decades ago I saw François Truffaut‘s Farenheit 451, based on Ray Bradbury‘s dystopian novel of a future where books are banned and “firemen” destroy any they find.

I don’t remember much of it (lots of it seemed fairly incoherent), but the final scene was remarkable to me. And, perhaps, prophetic. We couldn’t anticipate then an era where books could be burned or banned again – now we can. The world where they are little regarded outside academia is already here. Joseph Brodsky, as always, put it well: “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

Truffaut’s ending for Farenheit 451 puzzled many people when it came out in 1966. It doesn’t for many people who remember the Cold War world, when Anna Akhmatova had her friends memorize her poems, and then burn them. Memorizing allows you to become what is memorized; it becomes so internalized that it is forever a part of you.

Adam as always…

What is the answer? Adam Zagajewski told me years ago, when I asked him about a world that now longer turns to great literature, and specifically poetry, as it attempts to come to grips with the world and the self. What future for literature? “We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.”

In his introduction to Edward Snow’s translations of Rainer Maria Rilke. he elaborated:

“We have a new sorrow today: after the terrible catastrophes of the twentieth century, after the disasters that entered both our memory and imagination, we tread gingerly at the point where poetry meets society; “Don’t walk beyond this line,” as the sign on every jetliner’s wing warns us. And yet the central issue for us is probably the question of whether the mystery at the heart of poetry (and of art in general) can be kept safe against the assaults of an omnipresent talkative and soulless journalism and an equally omnipresent popular science—or pseudo-science. It also has a lot to do with the weighing of the advantages and vices of mass culture, with the influence of mass media, and with a difficult search for genuine expression inside the commercial framework that has replaced older, less vulgar traditions and institutions in our societies. In this respect, it’s true, poets have less to fear than their friends the painters, especially the successful ones, who, because of the absurd prices their works can now command, will never see their canvases in the houses of their fellow artists, in the apartments of people like themselves, only in vaults belonging to oil or television moguls who don’t even have time to look at them. Still, the stakes of the debate and its seriousness are not very different and not less important than a hundred years ago.”

There will be a future, for books and for reading them. See Ray Bradbury’s notion of it in his 1953 novel, Farenheit 451. Or watch Truffaut’s ending in the video clip below. (And let me know which book you would become… I’m curious…)


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4 Responses to “What future for literature? Thinking fondly of “The Book People” in Farenheit 451

  1. George Says:

    Somehow I missed Fahrenheit 451 on my way through school. When my son was in middle school, and stuck on what to say about it, I read it. I concluded that it was about a dialectic of freedom and servitude, each represented by one man and one woman. He found this plausible, and wrote his paper accordingly. The servitude of course need not be that enforced by the state. The chief fireman, Captain Beatty does represent that. But Mildred Montag has chosen consumerism as servitude.

    Has the pressure of mass culture and popularized science and pseudo-science really worsened since the 19th Century? My own guess is that it hasn’t.

    Certainly I am in favor of memorizing poetry. A friend who lived for some time in Russia spoke of the Russian habit of memorizing poetry, and her embarrassment at the poverty of her own store of remembered poems. However, I imagine that at least sixty percent of Americans over ten remember some verse. It probably wouldn’t make the cut for the canon as defined at Stanford, it is likely to be the lyrics to country or R&B or rap music, it might be the crass verses that circulate in middle and high schools; but it will be something. Now if one could only improve on that.

  2. Jeff S. Says:

    I do find it heartening at times like this to think about Poetry Out Loud, which has planted poems—in many cases, I suspect permanently—in the heads of more than 3 million students in the past 15 years, the oldest of whom are now getting close to 30.

  3. John Lindstrom Says:

    What book? Does it have to be one? You would force me to choose between WInd in the Willows, Moby Dick, Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek, The Karla Novels, The Battle Cry of Freedom,The Great Gatsby or any of Wodehouse’s novels or all of Robert Frost or Edna St. Vincent Millay and too many others. Damned unfair, if you ask me.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Well, I think you’d have your work cut out for you with Moby Dick, John! I don’t think there would be room in your head for another. The film clip shows people deciding to become one book, but they probably would have welcomed volunteers for more.