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Fahrenheit 451

April 20, 2004

A public radio commentary

My town has just formed a city-wide book club. By voting we choose our first book: Ray Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451. How appropriate for this age of Napster, downloading music from the web, DVDs, and electronic books. It seems at first that Fahrenheit 451 has nothing to do with these things, after all none existed in the late 1940s when Bradbury started writing this novel, yet the the novel carries an important message for our electronic age. In writing Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury reacted to an event fresh in public memory: The mass book burnings by Nazis only a decade earlier. Just as the Nazis attempted to wipe out a cultural heritage, the anonymous State in Fahrenheit 451 tries to control the past.

The book's hero, Guy Montag, works as a kind of "inverted" fireman using a kerosene-filled hose to burn books, instead of putting out fires. Montag's government has banned books, thus denying artistic freedom to build on the traditions, insights and errors of the past. We follow Montag as he converts from implementing the Government's media book ban to preserving his nation's cultural heritage. He memorizes books to keep alive the intellectual traditions of his society's ancestors.

The power of Bradbury's book today lies in its aptness for our high tech information age. Today we run the risk that every embodiment of thought or imagination may be subjected to some kind of commercial control.

It appears most often in restrictions on copying digitally stored music and movies. For example, the movie industry recently fought a court battle in California to outlaw software that makes backup DVDs for home use. This was only one of many attempts by the Motion Picture Association to get a judicial or congressional ban on all copying. We should be alarmed by these efforts, and should worry about controls on all electronic forms of information.

Think, for a moment, about electronic books: In the current climate readers may lose the rights they've had since Gutenberg's time because the publishers of an electronic book can specify whether you can read the book all at once, or only in parts. And they can decide whether you read it once or a hundred times.

Just as the book-burning firemen in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 nearly erase the heritage of a culture, we run the risk that the literary and intellectual canon of the coming century may be locked into a digital vault accessible only to a few, resulting in a lack of access that prevents the next generation of artist from drawing on the insights and errors of the past.

So, as the Courts and Congress regulate digital copying and the use of electronic media I think they should keep in mind an aphorism from T.S. Eliot. "Good poets borrow," he said, "great poets steal."

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises