Ray Bradbury was Once Told His Interpretation of His Own Book Was Wrong

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Ray Bradbury is a name synonymous with one book, Fahrenheit 451, a novel set in a twisted future version of America where books are burned on sight. The book is well-regarded as a literary classic and it has been studied by academics for decades, some of whom once told Bradbury, to his face, that he was wrong about his own book. 

Before we get ahead of ourselves though, it has long been believed by people studying the novel that it is a commentary on censorship and a very clever one at that. There have been literally thousands of articles written about this subject and we’re not going to bore you with the details about how academics have interpreted the novel over the years, because they all say the same basic thing. Fahrenheit 451 is a novel about censorship.

Well that and people bursting into flames.
Well that and people bursting into flames.

The thing is, according to Bradbury, you know, the guy who wrote the book in the first place, it isn’t about censorship, like at all. Though Bradbury did indeed write the book during an era when actual book burnings were a thing that totally could have happened at any moment, he has always insisted that the main theme of the book is the role of the mass media and its effect on the populace, in particular television and how it makes people less able to digest more complex forms of media, like books.

However, virtually nobody accepts this as the true theme of the novel, even though it’s an exact-ish quote from the guy who wrote the bloody thing. The perfect example of this was a time when Bradbury himself was giving a lecture on the novel to a class of college students and upon casually mentioning that the theme of the novel was the dangers of television, he was stopped in his tracks by someone loudly exclaiming “no, it’s about censorship!“.

After regaining his composure, Bradbury then tried to correct the student, presumably by pointing to the part of the cover where it said his name in giant letters, only for the rest of the class to chime in and agree that the novel was totally about censorship.  Bradbury was so pissed off at the sheer pig-headedness of the students that he straight up stormed out of the class and vowed he’d never give another lecture on it.

So the next time someone tells you that college students are full of themselves and you think they’re being a little unfair, just remember that a group of them once literally tried to argue with a guy who wrote the book they were studying and made him leave out of frustration when they wouldn’t believe his interpretation of his own book.

 

  • CesareB

    “However, virtually nobody excepts this as the true theme…” – I think you meant “accepts”. I know no one edits your work, so here I am helping you out. Nice fact.

    • Thanks for the heads up, I was a little rushed when I wrote this.

      Glad you liked it!

    • BabsonTask

      And not even a thank you…

    • Britt

      Also: “book burning were a thing that totally could have happened at any moment” should be: “book burning totally could have happened at any moment…” The agreement was incorrect and the wording redundant.

      Anyways, a good follow-up to this article is the book (italics) Amusing Ourselves to Death (de-italics), by Neil Postman. It also talks about how media consumption can change the very fabric of society and how consumption of simple media can ruin our ability to understand complexity.

  • Dr. Matthew D. Zarzeczny, FINS

    Karl, hats off on getting over 15,000 views on the article! I was wondering which article from your site (Fact Fiend) and mine (Cracked History) would be the first to pass that milestone! Again, well done!

    • Aerolfos

      Thank Toalbiscuit for sharing it. He broke the entire site!

      • Pinofev

        You do realise that you’ve just replied to a 1 year comment?

        • Fuldermox

          What is a 1 year comment? I didn’t see anything in the article referring to 1 year.

          • Pinofev

            One-year-old. I forgot the “old” part.

        • froyton

          I know, right? Who even does that?

  • Michael Ellis Day

    In 1956, Bradbury explicitly said “I wrote this book at a time when I was worried about the way things were going in this country four years ago. Too many people were afraid of their shadows; there was a threat of book burning. Many of the books were being taken off the shelves at that time.”

    • Marcel Moreau

      And how does this mean that the book is about censorship? It could very well be that what he was indicating was that he was worried that people were growing too reliant on television and other media for knowledge and loosing interest in picking up a book and reading. That people were loosing respect for the written word and turning to other means of gathering information that are more passive in nature then active. Watching tv is after all a passive medium for learning information as opposed to reading a book(or in this day and age, looking it up online).

      • Michael Mccutcheon

        too many o’s in loosing, just need one. cuz “lose”

    • Katharine

      Burned as a response to propaganda through the early forms of mass media. A book is solid, it lasts. At the time broadcasts and recordings weren’t really expected to last through the ages, while written books already had. Recordings that survived now appear more solid and lasting but we could more easily lose all of them then all our printed matter. I might have interpreted the above quote to a fear of increasing censorship, but in light of Bradbury’s insistence (which indicates that the suggestion didn’t ring any kind of subconscious bell for him) might he have been talking about people putting their faith and attention into this temporary media and rejecting the old media, the solid, the lasting?

  • Cxioscia

    So what? Ray Bradbury may well have been wrong, if you accept the whole ‘Death of the Author’ thing. Not everyone agrees that writing something affords you special privileged knowledge about it.

    • zlk

      That’s kind of silly. That’s like you giving a speech about one thing and having the audience then exclaim your speech is actually about something entirely different.

      • Guy

        Yeah, it means you failed at your intentions. It happens all the time.

        • GNS

          No, it means that you failed at _communicating_ your intentions. Not that your intentions are (or could be) retrospectively changed by others’ ‘privilege’. That’s just post-modernist silliness.

    • HaveYourCake

      Actually it does afford you special privilege, especially when it is a world you created. You as the reader, have absolutely no privilege except to either enjoy it, or not enjoy it. You do not get to tell the God of His own world what He was thinking.

  • nymetswinws

    Authors should never say what a story is about unless explicitly asked. If someone else interprets their own meaning from a work there is nothing wrong with that. Art is destroyed the moment we are told what to think/feel/believe about it.

    • Kay

      Unless you’re the creator and you had a specific message in mind. They shouldn’t have to keep their mouths shut about their own work. Artists don’t create for YOU, it’s not a favor, or some thought exercise being done for YOU. They don’t owe you anything, and they don’t have to be happy about their work being misinterpreted. Some don’t mind if people take different meanings from their work, Ray Bradbury is an example of someone who did.

    • actionmanrandell

      complete and utter B.S if i were to write a novel and someone told me that my interpretation of the book was wrong. then i would flat out tell them that they are delusional

      • CalumH

        Why? The novelist could just be a bad writer who ends up conveying a different message than they intended; a miscommunication. They could be a fantastic writer but unaware of all of the discourses they’re entering into. They could focus too much on pushing one meaning and miss all of the other things that have fed into their writing, things which might seem obvious to the reader. I think you’re right to say it’s stupid for someone to say the writer is ‘wrong’. Anyone who were to say that would be missing the point. But at the same time the author can’t reasonably throw that judgment at their readers if they can show how they actually come to that conclusion from the text. There’s a solid case for a reading of Fahrenheit 451 as being about censorship- the words are right there to be interpreted that way, and they lend themselves to it! Bradbury’s intended meaning is another plausible reading, but you cant be expected to adhere to that understanding of it unless that meaning came to you through the book itself. The students in this story are undoubtedly dicks about it though.

  • TheBaltimoron

    [citation needed]

  • guest

    Authorial intent is irrelevant. If Georges Orwell claimed “Animal Farm” wasn’t about the russian revolution and the USSR, we wouldn’t have listened to him. Same here

    • actionmanrandell

      Authorial Intent is absolutely fact

  • Joe Vaish

    Old thread, but I hope for sake of that is holy none of the people here actually procreate. Please, for the fucking love of god or science or whatever, just don’t!

    • pharoahfro

      thanks for your comment.

  • Jermain Man

    Even though it is completely ignorant of these kids to argue with the author about the meaning of his own book, it’s probably the teacher/professor’s fault they are all retarded.

  • Cymen

    Well, in post-modernism, it doesn’t really matter how the author interprets his own work. The author is dead.

  • Joe Blevins

    “Ray Bradbury is a name synonymous with one book.” Bitch, you did not just say that.

    • lmntCrans

      Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine, The Martian Chronicles, R is for Rocket, S is for Space, I Sing The Body Electric, that’s just starting …. https://youtu.be/e1IxOS4VzKM

  • ErlichRD

    Couple points:
    (1) A book can be about more than one thing, and interesting books often have themes, not just one theme.
    (2) Once a book is out in the world, the author is broken back to the ranks and is pretty much just another critic, although one with a better idea than most about how the book got written. If s/he wanted to get technical about “authorial intention,” an author would have to say with any comment, “This is what I recall I think I intended to say — but do keep in mind that I make money telling long, convoluted, well-crafted lies.”

    • HaveYourCake

      #2, You are wrong. So, very, very wrong. Artists do what Critics can’t.

      And I have a feeling you are the latter not the former.

      • ErlichRD

        Okay, I’ll quote an author: Acting as a critic, D. H. Lawrence said, “Trust the tale, not the teller” (quoting from memory).

        Peace, HaveYourCake; we all have our roles to play. Me, I was a critic, teacher, scholar; nowadays I edit, and according the the sacred IMDb and the Lords of ComicCon, I’m a movie producer. So if you want to say I’m a parasite upon artists, okay; I’d say I’m a symbiote (although SpellCheck disapproves of the word).

  • nijimasu

    ya’ll had best read this short Bradbury story. http://resources.mhs.vic.edu.au/shortstories/downloads/The_Pedestrian.pdf

  • Seth

    Just a note, there’s less to no interpretation of one’s own art form but rather only implication or intention as the author/artists knows the exact meaning of their own work. Interpretation, in this scenario, can only be done by the students. The writer then seemingly got upset at the readers’ unwillingness to accept his intention as it conflicted with how they’ve been taught to interpret it.

  • Leslie Cambias

    Remember that books banned in the mid 20th c were books like Huckleberry Finn, which was in the vernacular of its time and contained the dreaded “n” word. Any books that were deemed politically incorrect were removed from libraries and schools by order of the ruling llefties.

  • bobbymeizer

    While it’s obviously an error to discount an author’s intentions, it’s also incorrect to think that a book couldn’t have implications that the author didn’t consciously intend. I’m left wondering if the author of this piece gets that.

  • n4zhg

    Issac Asimov wrote a short story about a time machine that had brought Shakespeare to the modern age. He demanded to be sent back after he audited a course on his body of work and the professor flunked him.

  • Tim White

    For someone who ‘loves facts’ this piece is deplorably short on them and rather thin on research. If its not about censorship, then what? Might be a better approach. In his RB biography Sam Weller reports that Fahrenheit 451 was a reaction to Macarthyism nwhen book and records were burned, and the anti-intellectualism of America in general. WW2 was also fresh in Bradbury’s mind when Nazis attacked libraries and burned books. Perhaps not simply censorship, but the narrow bigotry which drives things like censorship.

    • HaveYourCake

      Sam Weller was wrong. And Ray argued against it furiously.