- Author: Ray Bradbury
- File Size: 1386 KB
- Print Length: 119 pages
- Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1973404435
- Publisher: HarperVoyager; New Ed edition (February 14, 2013)
- Publication Date: February 14, 2013
- Language: English
The hauntingly prophetic classic novel set in a not-too-distant future where books are burned by a special task force of firemen.
Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness. Even so, Montag is unhappy; there is discord in his marriage. Are books hidden in his house? The Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department, armed with a lethal hypodermic, escorted by helicopters, is ready to track down those dissidents who defy society to preserve and read books.
The Classic novel of a post-literate future, Fahrenheit 451 is part of the Voyager Classic series. It stands alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World as a prophetic account of Western civilization’s enslavement by the media, drugs and conformity.
Bradbury’s powerful and poetic prose combines with uncanny insight into the potential of technology to creat a novel which, forty years on from first publication, still has the power to dazzle and shock.
In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s classic, frightening vision of the future, firemen don’t put out fires–they start them in order to burn books. Bradbury’s vividly painted society holds up the appearance of happiness as the highest goal–a place where trivial information is good, and knowledge and ideas are bad. Fire Captain Beatty explains it this way, “Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs…. Don’t give them slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.”
Guy Montag is a book-burning fireman undergoing a crisis of faith. His wife spends all day with her television “family,” imploring Montag to work harder so that they can afford a fourth TV wall. Their dull, empty life sharply contrasts with that of his next-door neighbor Clarisse, a young girl thrilled by the ideas in books, and more interested in what she can see in the world around her than in the mindless chatter of the tube. When Clarisse disappears mysteriously, Montag is moved to make some changes, and starts hiding books in his home. Eventually, his wife turns him in, and he must answer the call to burn his secret cache of books. After fleeing to avoid arrest, Montag winds up joining an outlaw band of scholars who keep the contents of books in their heads, waiting for the time society will once again need the wisdom of literature.
Bradbury–the author of more than 500 short stories, novels, plays, and poems, including The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man–is the winner of many awards, including the Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America. Readers ages 13 to 93 will be swept up in the harrowing suspense of Fahrenheit 451, and no doubt will join the hordes of Bradbury fans worldwide.
In a future society, books are forbidden and “firemen” responsible for burning the remaining titles. That’s the job of one Guy Montag, but he begins to question his role as he gets in contact with a teenager who reads secretly. And he becomes himself a criminal reader of smuggled books.
The most surprising thing about Fahrenheit 451 is that it’s premise could, in the hands of a lesser writer, easily turn a condescending little lesson about the importance of reading books. But like any work of art that would be missed if it was burned, Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t want to give you answers. The book wants you to ask questions.
The main point for me is not that books are burned. That is only the most dramatic side of something bigger: that society allows them to be burned, and that no one is interested in reading in the first place. The only sources of distraction for the denizens of Fahrenheit 451 are sports or soap operas in televisions the size of entire walls. The speed of television does not allow you to stop and think, just swallow that entertainment loaf. From this insipid entertainment are born people who literally talk to the walls and a society unable to question.
Montag’s wife, Mildred is one example. She can’t talk about anything other than the soaps or what threatens her financial security. She is a cattle-person, described as having an invisible cataract behind her pupils, afraid of anything different, incapable of thinking or feeling without directions from the TV or authorities. Montag discovers how they can’t connect to one another because in the end they don’t know their own history. And without that knowledge you can’t even know who you are, or what you want.
Today is 2015, and the society described in Fahrenheit 451 seems even more palpable than when the book was written in 1953. The internet shortens our attention span towards shorter and simpler texts and videos. More than ever we more intelligent – we have access to an ocean of information literally at our finger tips – but we are not wise. We don’t know what to do with our information.
And we have no memory. The social media timelines dictate the discussion of the day, what funny video is trending, what news we should be disgusted with, what meme will be the big joke for a day or two before it is once again forgotten. Fahrenheit 451 even reminds us of the “mass society judgments” that lead to self-censorship.
I believe reading is fundamentally important for wisdom, more than any other art form. Reading is solitary work. It demands silence, and to let your ideas absorb the author’s, contest them, accept or adapt. Fahrenheit 451 says that you can’t make others think, but I believe it comes with a good recipe for wisdom: “Number one, like I said, is quality of information. Number two: time to digest. And number three: the right to conduct your actions based on what we learn from the two previous items.”
‘It was a pleasure to burn.’
It’s such a famous opening line and despite the fact that I’d never read Fahrenheit 451, one I’ve seemed to know for the longest time. It would crop up every so often in my life, usually at trivia nights. I knew it was a classic book, the type reluctant schoolchildren are assigned to read as part of their curriculum. As a progressive I always felt I was doing it a disservice by not reading it, so I set out to buy it on Amazon and finished it in under a day.
Let’s tackle the plot first.
It’s set in a Mid-West American city in a dystopian future. Our hero, Guy Montag, is a fireman except firemen in the future don’t put out fires, they cause them. Books are forbidden and if any are discovered they are burned, including the house hiding them. Montag has no qualms with this, until one day he’s called out to the house of an elderly lady. She chooses to set fire to herself and her house before Montag can do it. Shaken to the core by this, he tries to share it with his wife Mildred, but she’s too addicted to vapid and superficial television shows to engage in conversation. Her big concern is getting a fourth TV. The only person he develops a connection to is his teenage neighbour, Clarisse. She’s free-spirited and questions him constantly. One day she goes missing. Mildred casually tells him that Clarisse is dead.
Montag starts to wonder if books are really so bad. He steals a book of poetry from a house he’s called out to burn. His chief begins to grow suspicious of him and pontificates about the dangers of books and independent thinking. Montag begins to feel rebellious as he rails against the hedonistic nature of society. One night Mildred invites some girlfriends over. Montag rashly brings his book out and recites poetry to them, moving one woman to tears. The others are mortified and Montag finds himself in serious trouble. I’ll stop here before spoilers creep in.
I was interested to learn Bradbury’s inspiration for this book. Apparently he was once out walking at night with a fellow writer when a police car pulled up and an officer got out. He asked Bradbury what he was doing, to which he responded that he was walking, “Putting one foot in front of the other.” The officer was unamused with what he considered a smark aleck response and told him never to do it again. Bradbury was so angry that he went home and wrote a short story about a man who lived in a time when walking was considered a crime. Bradbury was also outraged at the persecution of artists by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the House of un-American Activities.
Many writers far better equipped than myself have wrestled writing a treatise for this book, so I’ll leave further analysis to them. I just wanted to say that despite the obvious allegory in the story, I think it works just as a simple tale about the importance of books. Books have always been a big presence in my life. From as far back as I can remember, I have always had a full bookcase, jam-packed with titles in my bedroom. I was a voracious reader, blithely leaving books wherever I finished them (invariably not in said bookcase). I grew complacent and took it for granted that I was free to read whatever I chose. It was only as I grew older that I began learning about the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, about the Nazi book burnings, and about the scorching and burial of texts and hundreds of Confucian scholars in ancient China.
It’s sobering stuff and made me think. I know of no country that doesn’t have an undercurrent of anti-intellectualism. Generally books are considered deep (though plenty aren’t), and there will always be those whom openly distrust (to the point of hostility) those deemed ‘highfalutin and clever.’ It is entirely plausible that at some stage in the future, books will be banned in any given country.
If nothing else Fahrenheit 451 should serve as a warning against authoritarianism, and for a call to keep the free flow of knowledge and art alive. When I cast a roving eye on the pile of books next to me, I am full of appreciation and awe. I will protect them from any fire.