Zen in the Art of Writing: ‘Investing Dimes: Fahrenheit 451’

It cost Ray Bradbury $9.80 in dimes back in 1950 to write The Fire Man (which would later become Fahrenheit 451) on typewriters at the UCLA library. In today’s money, that may not seem like much. About $10 in quarters will do laundry for the Zowie family for about a week. But 60 years ago? It must’ve seemed like a small fortune.

Why the trouble? Mr. Bradbury and his wife Marguerite were married with children and were doing what so many do in the first decade or so of marriage: struggling to make ends meet. They couldn’t afford an office for him to work in, so he set up his typewriter in the garage. His daughters liked to go out there and play, and according to Mr. B, he would choose playing with his daughters to working. And since much of the Bradbury family income came from fiction writing…

So, a Plan B had to be implemented. At the University of California at Los Angeles library, typewriters could be rented for a dime per half hour. So, he went and typed. And typed. And typed. In nine days, he had 25,000 words–the makings of a solid short story. I’m sure to some this may seem extreme, but when it comes to writing, you have to be someplace without distractions. Distractions can be the death of great writing. Much is made about Jack Torrance chewing out his wife in The Shining for interrupting him while writing, and Melvin Udall made no friends getting angry at his neighbor Simon for doing the same. While the admonishments were handled poorly, I can sympathize with both of Jack Nicholson’s characters.

For the benefit of those not familiar with Mr. Bradbury’s work, let me summarize Fahrenheit 451: Guy Montag is a futuristic fireman, except that he’s not a fireman the way we’d define it. Instead of putting out fires, he uses fire to destroy books and the houses where they were stored. All books were banned, from the Holy Bible to the Quran and from Mein Kampf to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Each book offended someone, and society felt that with no books, there would be more order and fewer occasions to offend. Montag, like so many in literature, becomes curious about books and starts privately wondering if banning them is such a great idea after all. He rebels, starts storing books at his house and eventually is forced to burn down his home. After turning his flame thrower on his chief, Montag escapes into the underground and meets people working feverishly to memorize and preserve the great works of literature. The book ends with him wondering what the future holds for society.

I understand that in the Wall Street Journal Opinion journal back in 2003, Mr. Bradbury denied his book was an attempt to predict the future. Instead: “I was trying to prevent it.”

Writing this book, Mr. B reports, inspired him into an explosion of reading and writing as much as he could. Besides the thousands of books lining the shelves of the Bradbury home, he wrote in countless genres: short stories, books, essays, plays, screenplays and even poems. One such story he mentions in this chapter is one where he uses a time machine (a favorite science fiction theme of mine even though I personally don’t believe time travel is possible [and even if it is possible, it would create far more problems than it would solve]) to visit and encourage Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and Oscar Wilde in their final hours.

Mr. B decided a few years down the road to write what turned into a two-act play and revisit the characters from F-451 and see what they were up to. Among the things discovered was that the fire chief actually had a large treasure trove of books. Having the books isn’t illegal, he tells a flabbergasted Montag. Reading them is.

It seems that $9.80 in dimes was a reasonable investment for a book that would make 20th century readers think long and hard about the consequences of banning books.

Richard Zowie is a writer and active blogger. Post comments here or drop him a line at richardzowie@gmail.com.