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Fahrenheit 451, cultural blind spots, and how to live with them

What’s your Kryptonite? Harry Potter? Star Wars? Seinfeld?


HBO's adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 premiers May 19. 

Michael Gibson/HBO

The guilt had been coming in waves lately.

I'd fire up HBO Now to watch something and run into a promo for Fahrenheit 451, a new movie adaptation of the classic Ray Bradbury book, starring Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon, out this Saturday.

Fahrenheit 451 is one of those books that seemingly everyone read in high school. The basic premise is that firefighters don't put out fires, they start them, specifically to rid society of thought- and emotion-inducing books. It's one of the quintessential works of American literature and a tale about the dangers of censorship, and it's scarily still relevant today.

I didn't read it, though. I don't know why. Midcentury dystopian tales like Brave New World and 1984 were, as the kids say, my jam.

So, a few weeks ago, I stealthily made my way to a used book store and bought an old paperback copy of Fahrenheit 451. Standing in line, I imagined getting a quizzical look from the cashier, judgment shooting from her eyes like molten death beams, and withering, I'd squeak, "It's for my niece."

I don't even have a niece.

But the cashier asked me no questions, and I went home to the privacy of my porch with the intent of closing this chasm in my pop culture knowledge.

What's your blind spot?

Everyone has their pop culture blind spots. There's not enough time to consume every single movie, TV show, album and book -- even the ones considered required reading or viewing. And who's to say what's essential and what's not?

I set out to get a feel for how other folks deal with their own pop culture blind spots. What have they skipped? How does it make them feel? How do they muddle through the world when they have no idea who Toto is and what Kansas has to do with anything?

It sounded like a job for the social media hive mind.

First, I did an informal poll in order to assuage my Fahrenheit 451 guilt.

Turns out, I'm not the only one who hadn't read it, though we were still in the minority.  

Out of 62 kind souls who responded to my poll, 48 percent said they'd read it in high school on their own or as required reading. About 10 percent read it after high school, while 42 percent still hadn't read it at all.

I also asked what people's big blind spots were, and hoo boy, did I get some revealing answers.

CNET Section Editor David Katzmaier has never seen a Marvel movie or TV show. He said he's just not that interested. Sometimes he feels a bit left out, but it also provides him with, as he put it, "a constantly replenishing spring of self-superiority."

His 78-year-old mother, on the other hand, really enjoyed Avengers: Infinity War.

New York City-based Patrick Hosken hasn't read Harry Potter, though he's not ruling it out. Maybe one day if he has kids, he said, he might dive in along with them.

Terry Brown of Louisville, Kentucky, conversely, has seen "not one page, not one minute of [Harry Potter] film," and although his 12- and 9-year-old daughters are starting to take an interest in the boy wizard, Brown tweeted at me, "I'm gonna stay out."

Then there's Titanic, another blind spot that I surprisingly shared with a few colleagues. It may have also meant losing Senior Associate Editor Ry Crist's respect: "[Today I learned] of a disturbing amount of people within CNET who have not seen Titanic. Who even are these people?"  

And indeed, those of us who have avoided a 3-hour-and-15-minute run-up to a watery end ran toward each other on Twitter, even dragging Celine Dion into our mess.

Folks told me about how they hadn't seen Star Wars, The Goonies, The Office, Seinfeld, any of the Rocky movies, any Woody Allen movies. Hadn't listened to any boy bands in the '90s.

The reasons varied. Franklin, Tenn.-based Mary Henderson doesn't need the stress of TV dramas and their ongoing arcs. Jason Hiner, the global editor in chief of CNET sister site TechRepublic, isn't into the smart-aleck humor of The Simpsons. Sometimes people missed the boat because they were too old, too young or just didn't have access. Or, just wanted to watch Matlock instead.

The shame game

Lacking from this multi-social-media-platform discussion? Shame.

Sure, occasionally there were some strong reactions to revelations like my admission that I've never seen The Lion King and never will. But overall, there was a certain acceptance that there's some stuff you're just not going to get to. Also, life is short.

CNET Associate Editor Molly Price hasn't seen Star Wars, or any of the Godfather movies. She might someday, but she's not actively searching them out. TechRepublic Senior Writer Teena Maddox might not have watched Star Wars either, but for the insistence of her now-husband.

In truth, you could quit your job and devote your time to catching up, just so you can gain admittance to a club that involves casual mentions of John Hughes movies and the wide-eyed, knowing proclamation that The Wire is... Just. So. Good.

Or you can be satisfied knowing what you know and picking up what you can based on what interests you.

As I mentioned, I can't get enough of dystopia. When the movie version of Fahrenheit 451 comes out, I look forward to watching it and then dissecting it with my best friend, informed by that sweet, sweet source material. For me, that's a fun Monday night and a game in and of itself, trying whittle down a list of pop culture pieces that grows longer every month.

You have your sports, I have mine.

But Louisville-based Hannah Zimmerman, meanwhile, is sure she understands all she needs to about The Godfather, for example, from the references to it in the 1998 romantic comedy You've Got Mail.

"When packing for a trip, I know to leave the gun and take the cannoli," she said. "Is there more to know?"

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