A President Who Hates Books

A private book collection and owner are destroyed in “Fahrenheit 451”

Monday

Everyone seems to agree that Fire and Fury, the new Michael Wolff account of the Trump White House, doesn’t so much break new ground as confirm what people have suspected or known for quite some time. In June 2015, for instance, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked Donald Trump if he was able to read and didn’t get a very convincing “yes” in reply.  Wolff’s book confirms that we may be in Fahrenheit 451 territory.

Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker summarizes Wolff’s book on this topic:

The president doesn’t read and instead watches a lot of TV, preferably on one of the three screens in his bedroom, where he often retires by 6:30 p.m. to eat his dinner and make calls. He doesn’t listen, easily becomes bored and seems unable to pay attention. He repeats the same three stories within minutes of having just told them, and his memory loss is apparently becoming more pronounced.

Even during the campaign, when some say Trump was sharper, he was easily distracted and bored. Wolff tells of campaign adviser Sam Nunberg trying to teach Trump about the U.S. Constitution. “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment, before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head,” says Nunberg in the book. (That amendment is the one about people being safe from unreasonable search and seizure. Perhaps Trump, rather than being disinterested in the presentation, was expressing his opinion of the amendment.)

I owe the Ray Bradbury connection to author David Williams, who wrote an article describing how the mother of a 13-year-old, offended by Fahrenheit 451, demanded that a school system replace it with his own dystopian novel When the English Fall. The story itself is worth examining—the mother objected to the word “bastard”—but I turn here to Williams’s observation that the novel is uncomfortably close to Trump’s vision of how the world should be.

Bradbury imagined a world where corporate-authoritarian politics maintain the shallow mask of democracy as a gullible populace is spoonfed candidates. He visualized insurgents and criminals being hunted and killed by the “hound,” an unstoppable drone. He cast a vision of callow selfish brutalism as an endless war burns, far away from a populace willingly subjugated by distractions and banality.

Information, in the society of Fahrenheit 451, is an endless cavalcade of trivia, tightened and shortened until every mind is filled with a blinding, churning nothing. At a key point in the narrative, Montag’s boss Beatty visits him, and in a monologue gives the reader a vision of the way information was presented in this strange and nightmarish future:

…speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations, digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending […] classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. [….] Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click? Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!

Bradbury may not have actually used the word “Twitter,” but this 1953 description of the low-attention-span “future” cuts rather too close to home.

Print culture allows us to hold multiple ideas in suspension as we negotiate a complex world. Think of how voracious readers like Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln were able to understand the complexity of the world and respond by constructing a great nation. Trump leeches off what they built, achieving short-term victories by jettisoning truth, reason, science, morality, and social norms.

With con men like the president, however, we at least know what to expect. More discouraging is that most of the Republicans in Congress have signed up for his program. After all, if you can sell Americans anything simply by whirling their minds around while flinging off time-wasting thought, who needs the genuine wisdom offered up by authors?

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