By Ray Bradbury
“We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”
The premise of this story is utterly abhorrent to those of us who love reading. In his classic dystopian novel, American writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) created a world in which books are illegal and teams of ‘firemen’ are dispatched by the authorities to burn illicit copies discovered in the possession of clandestine readers. For good measure, they also incinerate the houses in which they are found.
A relatively short book (my 50th anniversary edition came in at 119 pages, including the author’s Introduction and Afterword), Fahrenheit 451 is set in an unspecified time in the future when people no longer appreciate nature, spend time alone or think for themselves. Rather, they watch endless hours of TV on sets that fill their walls, drive at ridiculously high speeds in their vehicles and listen to ‘Seashell Radio’ through earbud headphones. Familiar?
Its protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman living in a futuristic conurbation with his wife Mildred. He’s content to carry out his professional book-burning duties until one day he encounters Clarisse McClellan, a cheerful 17-year-old who walks at his side as he returns from work and fills his mind with thought-provoking notions. He subsequently experiences a series of disturbing incidents, which cause him to question his empty if hedonistic life and, in his disillusionment, seek answers in the very place he is expected to eschew.
“Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”
Bradbury supplies subtle writerly references aplenty – from Thoreau’s Walden to Plato’s The Republic – should you take pleasure in spotting literary allusions. He splits the narrative into three parts, each one ending in fire, thus constructing a 20th century allegory of a post-literate hell. The resultant effect is of a bleak but fast-paced suspenseful fantasy.
Should you be curious, 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the heat at which it is claimed book-paper catches fire. Bradbury originally said he was driven to write the novel because of his concerns over book burning in the United States, however, he later described his work as a commentary on the way mindless consumption of mass media reduces interest in reading literature.
While it may lack the subtlety and political profundity of Nineteen Eighty-Four or the barbed wit of Brave New World – indeed, it is very much a book of its time (think 1953, at the height of McCarthyism) – Fahrenheit 451 still resonates with modern readers. It succeeds, as the author probably intended, in being a searing indictment of state-based censorship in a country whose intellectually diminished citizens delight in the spectacle of public book burnings.
“Stuff your eyes with wonder,’ he said, ‘live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic that any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that,’ he said, ‘shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.”
This is my eleventh choice for The Classics Club.