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.