Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 - 1995 publication

One of my favorite books is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. For those who don't know the story, it is set in the not-so-distant-future; books have been banned and "firemen" are employed to seek out and burn books and the people who keep them. The story's protagonist, the fireman Montag, has lost faith in the righteousness of his profession and has begun saving books that he finds instead of incinerating them - a crime punishable by death.

In this scene, the suspicious fire chief, Beatty, pays an unexpected visit to Montag and his wife, Mildred, who is oblivious to her husband's illegal book collection. Montag is hiding a contraband book beneath a sofa pillow while Beatty recounts to them the history behind their profession of book burning:
Beatty peered at the smoke pattern he had put out on the air. "Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending."

"Snap ending," Mildred nodded.

"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. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet (you know the title certainly, Montag; it is probably only a faint rumor of a title to you Mrs. Montag) whose sole knowledge, as I say, of Hamlet was a one-page digest  in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors. Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there's your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more."

Mildred rose and began to move around the room, picking things up and putting them down. Beatty ignored her and continued.

"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 midair, 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!"

Mildred smoothed the bedclothes. Montag felt his heart jump and jump again as she patted his pillow. Right now she was pulling at his shoulder to try to get him to move so she could take the pillow out and fix it nicely and put it back. And perhaps cry out and stare or simply reach down her hand and say, "What's this?" and hold up the hidden book with touching innocence.

"School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?"

"Let me fix your pillow," said Mildred.

"No!" whispered Montag.

"The zipper displaces the button and a man lacks just that much time to think while dressing at dawn, a philosophical hour, and thus a melancholy hour."

Mildred said, "Here."

"Get away," said Montag.

"Life becomes one big pratfall, Montag; everything bang, boff, and wow!"

"Wow," said Mildred, yanking at the pillow.

"For God's sake, let me be!" cried Montag passionately.

Beatty opened his eyes wide.

Mildred's hand had frozen behind the pillow. Her fingers were tracing the book's outline and as the shape became familiar her face looked surprised and then stunned. Her mouth opened to ask a question...

- Fahrenheit 451 - 1995 publication

Sometimes, does it feel like everything is hurried; that everything is "abbreviated"; that there is no enjoyment of the process, but only a mad rush to "get-r-done"? In the fitness and strength and conditioning fields too, it seems that there is no quest for "mastery", only tangible, quantifiable, and hasty results.

"Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted." - Albert Einstein

 Check-out aisles at the local grocery store sell magazines with the latest "Lose 10 Pounds In A Week!" article about a b-list celebrity; wildly popular S&C writers peddle ads disguised as information titled "Gain 50lbs On Your Bench In 4 Weeks!" repeatedly... for the same websites... and the same readers...; everything is reduced to a sound-byte, a Tweet, an abstract, a fast paced "Tabata" session...

I'm not really sure where I'm going with all this to be honest... Maybe what I want to say is that discipline and consistency without mindfulness and patience will run you into an injury-overtraining-laden wall sooner than you'd like. Abbreviated programs are great, but the path to mastery is a long one and abbreviated programs are no short cut.

Maybe I'm just trying to say that Ray Bradbury is a genius.


Peter D said...

Abbreviated programs are great. But like you said there aren't any shortcuts to mastery. You can't skip the beginning, cut down the middle, and skip to the end. If you do, you take all meaning and value out of the results.

Bradbury knew this too. :D

Unknown said...

Long time lurker, first time poster.

Bradbury was an incredible writer. I get chills reading this passage every time I pick up 451, and I think every disaffected young boy needs to read "Something Wicked This Way Comes" at least a few times.

To me, the fitness takeaway isn't mastery. Don't get me wrong, I love mastery, but for most people mastery isn't what's needed. And this passage specifically, what Beatty is really talking about is coarsening, dumbing down, condensing.

It reminds me of Dan John's saw that "when you say you do "X," I'm thinking that you are doing "Y," and so I suggest more "Z" and you hear "A."

The reason that situation happens more often than not is a lack of clarity and shared assumptions - which one acquires from language. In fitness, the language has been so warped by [insert boogeyman here] that there is no commonality, even in the age of video.

That's why to me, blogs like this are incredibly important. They take mastery insights and make them accessible to people who can't/don't/won't take the time to figure them out for themselves.

Let me put it this way: if we outfitted every home in the country with a complete set of kettlebells - what would you want people to do with them? Well ideally you know, every father would complete the ROP in a reasonable amount of time. But that ain't going to happen. No, what you'd want is for people to pick them up regularly, break a sweat and not injure themselves. By getting a little stronger they'd feel better and stay at work more and we'd all enjoy some public health benefits. Education is the same way. Why should a software developer really care about Hamlet? Because everyone benefits if he can have a conversation with another human being that doesn't relate to programming. Heck, he may even get a date! Wishful thinking, I know.

So to sum - public education (books) aren't as important in the mastery column as they are for the collective benefits everyone enjoys as a product of their correct use. So to with fitness and fitness tools.

Boris said...

Thank you Peter.

The great thing about (great) literature is the wide range of interpretation is allows.

I agree with you completely about the need for shared "cultural literacy" and the role literature plays in that. I'm not sure that significant "fitness literacy" can be had without some degree of mastery however.

IMO, if people had greater mastery of fitness means, they would be more confident, motivated, and capable of staying in (and if neccessary getting back into) shape. We, as S&C coaches and personal trainers do the general public no favors by offering them short-term band-aid solutions that will not be effective in the long run.