Thursday, 18 June 2009

Fahrenheit 451

Last November I visited the TH.2058 installation by Dominique Gonzales-Foerster in the Tate Modern, London.

The concept behind this temporary exhibit was a dystopian post-apocalyptic haven. From the brief (which appeared on the wall before you entered):

It rains incessantly in London – not a day, not an hour without rain, a deluge that has now lasted for years and changed the way people travel, their clothes, leisure activities, imagination and desires. They dream about infinitely dry deserts.

This continual watering has had a strange effect on urban sculptures. As well as erosion and rust, they have started to grow like giant, thirsty tropical plants, to become even more monumental. In order to hold this organic growth in check, it has been decided to store them in the Turbine Hall, surrounded by hundreds of bunks that shelter – day and night – refugees from the rain.

It sounds somewhat like a John Wyndham book, doesn't it? The rain, of which there was audio, also reminded me of post-nuclear black rain. Dystopian literature lay on the bunkbeds so that voyeurs could participate; the artist's vision was for people to lie down and read the books (not steal them, as happened). The photograph above is one I took but there were many books (apparently to begin with one on every bunk) including The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells; We by Yevgeny Zamyatin; The Drowned World JG Ballard; Hiroshima mon amour Marguerite Duras; The Man in the High Castle Philip K Dick. A number of these books -or the subsequent movie adaptations- I studied in the Writing the Disaster topic module I completed for my Master's course, but Fahrenheit 451 was one I hadn't yet read.

"FAHRENHEIT 451: the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns".

The above quote appears before the opening line, as a preface and introduction. The opening line reads "It was a pleasure to burn". Both lines ignite the imagination and desire to read more. Further down the page ... "He strode in a swarm of fireflies". Such poetry in a dystopian future where poetry is forbidden and books burned, incinerated by people themselves in the incinerators that each house contains, or by the subverted firemen who ignite fires rather than put them out. We are given insight into his totalitarian pyromania by the "He" in "a swarm of fireflies", the fireman with the symbolic 451 on his helmet, Guy Montag, who does not consciously question the burning of books, knowledge, and power, until he meets his neighbour, Clarisse McClellan, whose influence turns his world upside down within a week.

Conceptualised in the years following the A-bombs and written during the early years of the Cold War this Science Fiction classic is an actualised study of nuclear paranoia. Written on a pay type writer in the basement of a UCLA library, Ray Bradbury wrote a novel about his love of books. Completed during the era of McCarthyism, no publisher wanted to take the risk of publishing a book that they thought was about censorship until a visionary editor bought the manuscript for $450 (all that he could afford) to serialise it in his new magazine; the young editor was Hugh Hefner, the magazine was Playboy, and as Bradbury says in his preface to the novel, "The rest is history."

Fahrenheit 451 is a quick read -172 pages- and I read it overnight, in three sittings, and it is fairly accessible; some of the post-apocalyptic visions confused me and the fourth wall dimension of television -where the "family" appear in your "parlour"- blew my mind but overall it is an enjoyable futuristic study of dystopia that ranks up there with 1984 and Brave New World as a dystopian classic. The crux of the novel is that television has destroyed any interest in reading literature, a concept that is as pertinent -and even prophetic- now as it was almost sixty years ago. This was an enjoyable and rewarding read.

I would also like to leave you with a question: if you were fleeing a burning house but had the chance to save one book, what would it be? Would it be a rare, priceless and irreplacable one; a signed copy; a favourite; a sentimental choice? For me I would hate to lose my collection but material possessions can be replaced and however much I adore my books, sentiment and memory take precendence. I would grab my copy of Toni Morrison's Love from the shelf, a hardback copy that my boyfriend gave me for our first Christmas the year it was published, and which he beautifully inscribed.


farmlanebooks said...

Another great book! You are adding to my TBR pile too fast!

I'm afraid I wouldn't save any book from a fire. None I have are worth the risk and I don't tend to keep books after I've read them anyway. I'm going to have to give the usual boring response and say I'd save all my old photo albums.

Gareth said...

That's not so boring Jackie; I would save my macbook!

Paperback Reader said...

Oops, that's what happens when my boyfriend uses my Mac and leaves himself signed in!

Nymeth said...

I love dystopian literature. And that exhibit sounds fascinating.

If I could only save one book, it would probably be my signed copy of Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett. Not because signed books by him are particularly rare, but because I got it signed in person, and so it means a lot to me. Then I'd sit on the sidewalk outside and cry over my lost books :P

Paperback Reader said...

Oh definitely one to save, Ana (and to treaure)! I am envious.
Losing my books doesn't bear imagining but I thought it would make an interesting question.

Diane said...

I just read this one in 2008 - amazing story.

verity said...

I've been thinking about this all day, and while I know what I would save from the rare books collections I work with, I'm not sure what I'd save. Most of my books are probably replaceable, and very few have been given to me (I think because everyone is always worried about giving me something I've already read). For me my book collection as a whole is the important thing rather than anything individual. I'd probably end up saving whatever I was reading at the time if it was reasonably gripping, just in case I then missed out on finishing it.

Paperback Reader said...

Diane, it was a great story; I loved its premise.

Verity, what a great answer! With all the upheaval and waiting around I would imagine would take place I would be annoyed not to have my current read there to calm and occupy me.

verity said...

Yes, you're right. Actually, I'd probably grab something very thick that I hadn't read or was saving for a treat in case my library card had gone up in flames and I might not be able to get access to anything to read. That is my absolute nightmare, not having anything to read. I was once so desperate for something that I ended up, aged 7, struggling with my Dad's Barchester Towers (I didn't get very far) as I'd read all the books I'd taken on holiday!

JoAnn said...

What an interesting exhibit! I've been thinking about rereading Fahrenheit 451 (it was a struggle to get through in high school) and wondering what it would be like from an adult perspective. I hope to get to it this fall.

Paperback Reader said...

Verity, it is one of my worst nightmares too! Although I don't think it is anything to worry about in the foreseeable future as I have so many books to hand.

JoAnn, hopefully you will fare better with it second time around. It is such a quick read that it's worth another attempt.

Doigy said...

Naturally, I would be to busy getting my kids out to save any books but my most precious book is the bound copy of my Honours Dissertation 'The Rise and Fall of the U.S Cattle Trade: 1865-1884'.

I love Dystopian Literature and Borders were doing a dispaly the other day. I spotted a recent one by Jim Crace which I hadn't seen before called 'The Pesthouse'. Reviews seem to suggest it is a poor relation to Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road' but I sitll feel inclined to check it out.

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Doigy! Obviously the loved ones would be safe before the loved books! Once we have our cats I would ensure their safety, along with the boyfriend, and the Macbook (with writing and dissertation etc) before considering the books.

Upon first reading this I thought you were referring to the school kids and library! Ha.

I do love book displays pertaining to a certain theme; Borders did a good one recently on banned books, which brought a few unknown ones to my attention. Also Foyles currently have a fabulous rainbow display on a table where all the books are colours of the rainbow, gradually merging.