By: Jack Bussert
Young, passionate writer that I am, it should come as no surprise that I keep a copy of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 on the short bookshelf I use as a nightstand. Every time I’ve read it, I’ve found something new to take away, and it seems like with each new edition more material is added at the end to elucidate us on Bradbury’s views, his most famous one being the indomitable power of the written word. I’ve also watched the sitcom Scrubs from top to bottom at least four times, and will probably watch it again before the year is out. That’s a 67-hour commitment each time, which exceeds the number of hours I’ve spent reading Bradbury by a healthy margin. (Let’s not even talk about video games, the modern manifestation of Bradbury’s “family.” Let’s give the written word a sporting chance.) The 21st Century has shown us two things: the written word has lost its centrality in society, but at the same time it is in no fear of dying.
By “the written word” I do not merely mean the printed word; enough blog posts have written on that. I mean any form of transmission of ideas via text. In 2018, ideas can be distributed with surprising ease in written, video, and audio format. It doesn’t take an entire team and rare equipment like it used to. If you are reading this, then you have made all the financial investment you need to be a successful content creator. Now, you just need time and luck. Choose WordPress, YouTube, or any number of podcast platforms. I’ve had a copy of Polybius’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire on my shelf for a decade and still haven’t read it, but I’ve listened to Mike Duncan’s “The History of Rome” Podcast, all 90 hours of it. It started as a hobby for him but wound up being a legitimate revenue stream for him once its popularity exploded.
So, why choose the written word, whether as a consumer or producer? Everyone who’s shopped at university bookstores or perused fanfiction websites has their own answer, and that collection of answers has kept the medium prosperous. What keeps me coming back is the idea of text as an almost pure expression of language.
In the same way that a symphony allows one to view music in its purest, most abstract form, text allows one to experience language in its purest form. Speech can be aided by inflection and gesticulation; texts can only support themselves through diction and construction. Not every text makes use of this potential, but there’s a reason Nabokov’s Lolita will outlive Kubrick’s. Take the first few paragraphs of Chapter 1, their diction and scope:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
In this short span, the reader is taken through worlds of narrative suggestion and alliterative brilliance. In this short space we fully understand the narrator’s passion for this Lolita. Compare this to the movie’s first scene after the credits, which, though dramatic, is not as purely artistic and spectacular as the novel (I give no details for fear of spoiling the book, whose ending is the film’s beginning). It’s an opening scene for a film, a first, important and jarring but not unique, step forward. Fahrenheit 451 suffers a similar problem, incidentally. Though the language is not as refined as Nabokov, Bradbury, through syntax and construction and diction and omission, is able to create a world that is always burning hot and burning out. No film or television adaptation has yet to truly make us feel the terror and hope of a burning book like Bradbury did back in 1954.
A text with poor construction will always lose out to a half-decent audio or visual piece, but a well-written text will always hold its own on the global media stage. The medium may take on new shapes over time, maybe even overlapping with other media (“Device 6” for iOS being a beautiful marriage of short story and video game), but we should not mistake transformation for destruction. As long as we have the written word, we will have people who will seek to maximize its effectiveness and publishers to share it with the world.