Fahrenheit 451 is one of my favorite books, in case you were wondering. Though Huxley’s A Brave New World may have been more accurately prophetic in regard to our overall culture – no need to burn books, just get the people to where they do not want to read – I find Fahrenheit to be specifically accurate in how it speaks of modern human interaction. Allow me to quote at length from one of the early conversations between Guy and the unusual young Clarisse:
“Why aren’t you in school? I see you every day wandering around.” “Oh, they don’t miss me,” she said. “I’m antisocial, they say. I don’t mix. It’s so strange. I’m very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn’t it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this…Or talking about how strange the world is. Being with people is nice. But I don’t think it’s social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you?”
Clarisse goes on to describe the mind-numbing curriculum at school: “…do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don’t; they just run the answers at you…It’s a lot of funnels and a lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom, and them telling us its wine when it’s not.” That’s life at school.
What about life outside of school? Clarisse has some comments about this as well. In her times away from school, she confesses to being a people-watcher and even a bit of an eavesdropper. She claims, much to Guy’s dismay, “People don’t talk about anything. They name a lot of cars or clothes or swimming pools mostly and say how swell! But they all say the same things and nobody says anything different from anyone else.”
Later in the book, the reader is assaulted with more and more strained and awkward attempts at conversation by people who are wholly unused to it. Some of the exchanges are so uncomfortable that I can clearly remember shifting in my chair while reading them!
Yet, they also seemed strangely familiar to me. I dare say I am not the only one. I believe Bradbury’s “prediction” of what human conversation would become has been, and is being, realized.
Perhaps we should take to the challenge (if I may issue one) of examining our own conversations. Do we say anything of value? Do we listen or are we simply engaging in what Rebecca West called “intersecting monologues”? Conversation is a great part of what makes us human. We would all do well to take more time for it.