By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
As we move further into this global program of “social distancing” because of COVID-19, millions around the world are trying to figure out what to do with all the time they must now spend in isolation at home.
My advice is to read. I think many of us, myself included, are going to be tempted to throw away time to mindless entertainment, especially through screens. Forced indoors for weeks, it would be easy for many people to fall down a rabbit hole of Netflix binges, YouTube searches, video games and so on. But this would not be good for us. For it is especially at a time like this — a time of global uncertainty — that we ought to nourish ourselves interiorly.
I recently read a novel that depicted very well what is at stake in our ability to read. The novel is “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury, which I interpret as an apologia for a literary and philosophical culture. The story takes place in a dystopian future where books have been outlawed. The role of firemen in society has been terribly distorted: instead of carrying water in trucks to put out fires, firemen now carry kerosene to burn the homes of those who have private libraries. Why? Society fears books, or more specifically it fears those who engage in “unnecessary, time-wasting thought” (52). All thought has been reduced to “digest” format: headlines, one-liners, and other short communications like our own tweets, memes and status updates.
Education is driven by passing needs and never by the big questions. At school the teachers “never ask questions, or at least most don’t; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing” (27). For why think? “Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?” (53). People now spend their money for massive four-wall televisions, immersing themselves totally in a customized world of entertainment and fictitious, virtual relationships.
How did all this book burning and soul-numbing superficiality come about? As one of the villains in the book explains, “It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick” (55). In other words, the people did it to themselves. And why? It seems that Bradbury thinks we can be tempted to numb our minds because of fear – fear of self-examination and the fact that we are not yet as good as we’d like to be.
In “Fahrenheit 451” books make us uncomfortable because they remind us of the wonderful ideals to which we might aspire, if only we still had the humble courage to examine ourselves. Thoughtful people are a nuisance because they remind us that our choices, values and histories distinguish us. And to see difference is to enable comparison; but then we risk finding ourselves on the short end of the stick, which is uncomfortable for anyone unwilling to strive to improve. As the villain says, “We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it” (55-56).
Of course, no one is coming to our home to burn our books. But in this time of quarantine we should still watch out for these figurative firemen, those who try to burn our occasions to ask questions, to examine ourselves, to see reality. My impression is that lots of the media we consume is not intended to deepen, only to distract and sell. When I see the news, I often have the impression we are not supposed to think. Like the villain says, “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none” (58). When I watch popular movies or clips from entertainment award shows, I often get the impression that we are not supposed to aspire to anything beyond ourselves, like eternal truth, goodness and beauty.
Bradbury does not mean to say we must all become bookworms. Books are only an instrument, and they too can be superficial. One of the heroes in “Fahrenheit 451” explains, “It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlor families’ [i.e. the TV shows] today. The same infinite detail and awareness [of reality] could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not” (78). We need good books, movies, and conversations. Let’s find them! We need occasions to contemplate the rich, irreducible reality that surrounds us — and this time of isolation offers a tremendous opportunity to seek them out.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.