‘Fahrenheit 451: the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns…’ Ironically, my copy of this book was damaged by water, after I took it with me on our hike through the Ardennes. Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel published in 1953 on the burning of books, something that shocked the author immensely when it took place during the war. Ray Bradbury himself has said on numerous occasions that he didn’t try to predict the future, but in fact tried to prevent it. I’m not sure he succeeded though. It’s considered an American classic and even though I think the message of this book is an important one, I did have a lot of problems with this book. This review does contain a large amount of spoilers, so be warned.
Guy Montag is a fireman and he loves the adrenaline rush his work gives him. As everything has been made fireproof years ago, the fire brigade now has the purpose of burning books, which are forbidden. The captain of the fire brigade, Captain Beatty, explains that books all contradict each other and they make people confused and doubt themselves and the world they live in and therefor it makes them unhappy. And society has to make sure everyone is happy. Guy Montag, however, is not happy and a series of events causes him to really start thinking, for the first time in his life. First, he meets a young girl, Clarisse McClellan, who is unusually cheerful and clever, and often scolded for asking ‘why’, instead of ‘how’. Then he finds his wife, who has tried to overdose on pills. A cold and practical medical team comes in to pump her stomach and blood, and no one seems to actually care about her. Shortly afterwards, the fire brigade gets a call and they burn down a house of an old woman who had hundreds of books hidden in her home. The fact that this woman chose to be burned alive, rather than just see her books burn, really messes with Montag’s mind and that’s when the reader finds out he has been hiding books himself.
The fact that books are outlawed in this novel is quite disconcerting, but I think the warning in this book is twofold. First, there is that of censorship. I grew up in a house filled with books, in every corner. My mother, who was an English student and is now a librarian, has loads of novels and my father has his own study filled with theology and history volumes. I have a neat little combination of everything, and a collection of a size to match. The burning of books is horrifying to me and so it should be. When I was little, I loved the sight of all these books surrounding me, as I felt they contained the knowledge of the entire world. The thought of this being compromised through censorship is hard to imagine and the stuff of nightmares.
Secondly, there’s the theme of media taking over our lives. This book is the epitome of the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’, with society controlling every thought. People are completely disconnected from their surroundings and from other people. Everyone appears to be obsessed with ‘The Family’, a sort of sitcom on TV, instead of being with their own families. People walk around with these tiny earpieces that give you the news and commercials every second of the day. The state keeps everyone ‘happy’ and happy means as little to think or worry about as possible. This is a dystopian novel, but are we really that far off now? Books are not being burned, thank God, but we do live cut off from reality to a degree through media.
I do love dystopian novels and this one really is spine chilling. The state monitors everything and they watch every move you make. If something makes people think or talk to each other at length, they simply ban it. People who don’t conform simply disappear. The first sense you get of how terrifying this dystopian society actually is, is when Clarisse McClellan, the girl who asks too many questions, simply ‘disappears’. And people actually go along with all of this! As a bit of an outsider, an anarchist and a rebel, this is incredibly scary to me. Brilliantly, Bradbury describes this society like it is nothing out of the ordinary, as though you are part of it and part of the people who question nothing. The ‘wait a minute…’ feeling therefor settles in the pit of your stomach and you never really let go of that unease throughout the book: the paranoia the characters feel becomes your own, while reading. The author really did an amazing job on this.
However, practically all the characters in the story are quite two-dimensional and this bothered me. The only really interesting character, and one with a bit of depth to her, is Clarisse and she disappears early on in the book. Guy Montag seems very much like a vacant character at first. Also, his wife nearly overdoses and he doesn’t really seem to care, and then she betrays him for having books and all hell breaks loose and all of a sudden he’s worried about her: it doesn’t make sense. He eventually starts reading the books he’s been hiding and that’s when he breaks loose. He searches out a former English professor, Faber, he once met and they hatch a plan to take down the system. He never actually gets that far, as he goes on an impulsive spree and endangers a lot of people in doing so. This was just very annoying to me: Guy Montag is not an intelligent man. I understand that not all main characters have to be smart, but it was very frustrating to read and you spend half your time screaming at him: don’t do that! I’m guessing the idea behind this is showing that Guy is named Guy because he could be anyone: a ‘regular Joe’. But in the end, through his own actions he is forced to run and hide, and he doesn’t actually accomplish anything.
The style of writing is probably one that everyone has strong feelings about. As an American classic author, Bradbury is often praised for his unique prose. Some may find his style incredibly poetic and skilful. I did not. I feel like Bradbury is simply trying to hard, with far too long sentences without anything to add. There are too many metaphors and adjectives for my liking and I had a hard time ignoring something that irritated me so. Let me give you an example: ‘With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.’ Get to the point! Or you might love this style; it’s all a matter of taste. I found it a hindrance.
Today I listened to my professor going on for over fifteen minutes about how books are no longer necessary and bibliophiles are being put to shame by the invention of audiobooks. Not only did this infuriate me to no end and I had the hardest time biting my tongue, but it also made me think of the ending of this book. In the end, Guy Montag meets up with a group of refugees who live outside of society. Most of them are in fact English professors or used to have some kind of academic profession, and are therefor now useless to society. They explain to him that they, the ones who are trying to save books, are actually burning them as well! Come again? Yes, they are book-burners. However, they do memorize entire chapters and people all over the country are involved in this scheme, so that when the day comes that books are no longer illegal, they can write them all down again.
This is a bad idea on so many levels. First off, there’s a lot that can go wrong with this plan! What if someone dies, before they can pass on their chapter onto their children? And, trust me, if paragraph seven of Augustinus’ ‘Enchiridion’, for example, is missing, you won’t be able to understand much of the rest of the book. What if someone remembers a bit of the Bible incorrectly? Major drama can occur, as we know, through different interpretations alone! What if the person who has the plot for some great detective novel memorized goes missing? It’s just a faulty plan.
Secondly, books are so much more than just carriers of knowledge. I’ve been thinking about this: what makes the object book so important? We can’t imagine life without poetry, novels or the Bible. But why? And this is one thing that this story does very well: you will contemplate this while reading. Why are books worth saving? The answer, to me, is that each book is unique. Sure, we invented book printing, but as the horrible Captain Beatty points out in this book: no two books agree with each other. We live in a time where we are already being forced to conform more and more, and books are a much-needed refuge in my opinion. They contain alternatives, knowledge and imagination. Now for the object book; it is nothing but a symbol, maybe. They give me a sense of comfort and the powerful idea that I have all this knowledge in a physical shape in my hands. Though books can be pieces of art, they are just objects. But in the War, people who wore a red cross on their jacket didn’t get shot. That red cross didn’t protect them from the bullets, but it’s a symbol that everyone knew and respected. Books are the same: they are the symbol of freethinking and knowledge. Symbols are incredibly powerful: you don’t shoot someone from the Red Cross and you simply don’t burn books.
Fahrenheit 451 is not only about book censorship, but also about an obsession with media. This is what I loved most about this book: Yes, it is frightening as a prospect, but we absolutely should still read this book and take its warnings seriously. So, here’s to the people, the authors, who have gone before me and taught me all I know, and here’s to the people with whom I can discuss all the books I’ve ever loved, face to face.
Relevance Award: for warnings still to be heeded
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (New York, 1953)