I recently finished Ray Bradbury’s short novel Fahrenheit 451. The title refers to the temperature at which paper ignites, and it tells the story of Guy Montag, a fireman in a world where books and reading are illegal. Ironically, in this book, firemen don’t fight fires, they start them. Whenever a stash of books is found, the firemen are called in to burn them. In one memorable and vivid incident, a woman refuses to leave when the firemen show up, preferring to burn with her books. This seems to represent a crisis point for Montag, the point at which he begins to wonder why books must be burned.
There’s nothing particularly special about the characters or the plotting of the story, but Bradbury’s ideas and style seem to carry the book. Bradbury’s delirious prose evokes a lot of emotion and imagery. There’s the aforementioned woman burning with her books, but also the sensory overload of the “parlors” (basically a room rigged up with multiple televisions), the snake-like stomach pump, the mechanical hound, and the fire itself, burning through everything. It’s not an easy read, perhaps even overly poetic, but in this case it works. The novel is short enough and the ideas behind it are crazy enough that Bradbury’s style fits.
It’s a dystopia, and like a lot of such stories, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Again, Bradbury’s stylistic flourishes are what make it work here. There’s a lot of talk about how the book is critical of state-sponsored censorship, and I suppose there’s an element of that, but where Bradbury differs from his contemporaries is where the censorship began: as a populist movement. As Montag’s (surprisingly well-read) boss Beatty explains:
There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time…
It’s an intriguing notion. Mass media and conformity extrapolated out to its logical extreme. The dystopia aspect is unrealistic, and yet, the steps it would take to get there are things we see all the time. For a later edition of the book, Bradbury wrote a Coda where he expanded upon some of these ideas:
About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles.
But, she added, wouldn’t it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women’s characters and roles?
A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn’t I “do them over”?
Along about then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks and the entire story should be dropped.
The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feel it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.
Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from the book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever.
It’s a weird blend that Bradbury conjures with this novel. It’s the tyranny of the minority versus the tyranny of the majority, only they’re somehow set together into a negative feedback loop until you end up with a book-burning society. Some see the book as a condemnation of communism; railing against conformity in favor of individuality. And that’s certainly there, but what Bradbury wrote also condemns democracy and technology as a conduit towards conformity. I don’t think he’s entirely correct about it. 60 years later, we struggle with different problems… but that sorta misses the point.
Like Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a document of its era. I don’t find it a realistic portrayal of the world, but that doesn’t mean that Bradbury failed. Indeed, it means he succeeded. His tale portrays the nightmares of 1953, a time when radio and television and movies must have had the book on the run. Despite the frequent lament that people today don’t read enough, I think we’ve avoided Bradbury’s nightmare, and instead live with our own, perhaps stranger, problems.