As Ivy attended Book Expo America last week, our new book ideas gathered up in both paper and digital portfolios, I was struck by a curious coincidence. On 5 June 2012, while publishers and booksellers met to apply their considerable collective intellects to the conundrum of digital publishing, the author Ray Bradbury passed away. In a seventy-year writing career, he had sold over eight million books including works such as The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. But it was the title of his prophetic work Fahrenheit 451 that echoed around the hallowed halls of the Javits Center. Published in 1953, it was a response, according to its author, to the way in which television was destroying an interest in reading, but it seems remarkably prescient in today’s fast-spinning digital world. Taking its title from the temperature at which paper burns, the novel presents a future society in which the use of new electronic devices, the popularity of sports, and the furious pace of life, have caused attention spans to wither to the point where books have had to be ruthlessly abridged. Exploiting the situation, the government outlaws books, employing firemen to burn them, allowing the masses to be manipulated through cheap entertainment and a general lack of intellectual engagement.
It is irresistible to draw comparisons with today’s quickfire society of Internet and smart phone, where we’re all taking our tablets and the prognosis for the printed word can be a pessimistic one. Fahrenheit’s totemic value is enhanced by the fact that Bradbury wrote it on a typewriter in the basement of a library, unwittingly placing himself in symbolic opposition to the rapid onset of the digital age. As life imitates art, Fahrenheit 451 has itself recently been released as audio book, graphic novel and Ebook. Something wicked this way comes? Informed opinion at BEA suggests otherwise, with the belief that Ebook will be just one of many traditional and modern formats and paper remaining precious if not fireproof. I now have a burning desire to revisit Fahrenheit 451, but I plan to do so in an early edition, with a beautifully illustrated cover, that I can see, smell and touch.