'Fahrenheit 451' goes digital. Is Ray Bradbury mellowing?

Ray Bradbury, who has called the Internet a 'meaningless' distraction, is now finally allowing a digital version of 'Fahrenheit 451.'

"I hope it’s an experiment that works," said Ray Bradbury of the Internet, evidencing a softer stance as he allows his novel 'Fahrenheit 451' to appear in digital form.

He was one of the last bastions against the digital age, who once famously claimed that e-books “smell like burned fuel.” After years of resistance, however, Ray Bradbury has surrendered and his science fiction classic, “Fahrenheit 451” has been published as an e-book.

In the past, the outspoken Mr. Bradbury, now 91, has lambasted the Internet, e-books, “giant screens,” and the “moronic influence” they have on our culture. In 2009, he told The New York Times “the internet is a big distraction.” Yahoo!, he explained, had contacted him about putting one of his books on their site. “You know what I told them?” he told the Times. “’To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the internet. It’s distracting. It’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.’”

And in a video on his own homepage, Bradbury says that “Fahrenheit 451” isn’t just about book censorship, but about how television and other assorted “screens” can destroy and displace books. “ “Fahrenheit’s” not about censorship,” he says in the video. “It’s about the moronic influence of popular culture through local TV news, the proliferation of giant screens and the bombardment of factoids. We’ve moved in to this period of history that I described in 'Fahrenheit' 50 years ago.”

Nevertheless, publisher Simon & Schuster has convinced the forthright author to allow the release of “Fahrenheit” in digital format. Bradbury’s agent Michael Congdon told the AP that, per contract, renewing the book’s hardcover rights had to include digital rights, also.

“We explained the situation to [Bradbury] that a new contract wouldn’t be possible without e-book rights,” Mr. Congdon told the AP. “He understood and gave us the right to go ahead.”

Simon & Schuster announced the news Tuesday and “Fahrenheit” is now available as an e-book. The deal is reportedly worth millions. In order to get Bradbury to relent, reports Wired, "the publisher had to both pay a premium price and play a little hardball."

First published in 1953, the novel predicts a dystopian future in which books are burned and reading is banned. “Fahrenheit 451” has since sold more than 10 million copies.

As Wired notes, Bradbury has not been alone in his resistance to allowing electronic versions of his books. (The new agreement between Bradbury and Simon & Schuster includes the mass-market rights to "The Martian Chronicles" and "The Illustrated Man," but not their digital rights.) Harper Lee and Thomas Pynchon have balked at selling digital rights to their books, as has the estate of James Joyce.

But Bradbury, with his shift to digital, now stands poised to sell many more copies of “Fahrenheit” – perhaps to soften suspicions of the digital age.

In another video on his website, Bradbury acknowledges the irony of his own webpage and posits that although people are in danger of losing themselves in the virtual worlds of the Internet, it may also hold opportunities for some.

“I find it amusing that I’m on the internet now, because I’ve criticized it, but mainly I’ve criticized it on the basis of ‘what are you going to do with it?’ ” he explains. “I’ve been afraid of people playing their life away with too many toys.”

“All I want to do is warn people, that’s all,” he goes on. “We can use it as a good tool; we can use it for information. I hope it’s an experiment that works.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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