“Fahrenheit 451″ by Ray Bradbury

My one consolation for not having read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in school as a youngster is that I might not have liked it and appreciated it as much as I did when I read it this week. It’s one of the the many classics that somehow got missed in school and I never got around to as an adult until I saw a nice, new copy at a used bookstore, and here we are.

I knew the premise–most do, I think. There’s a dystopic future in which books are outlawed and burned. The title is a reference to the temperature at which paper burns. Guy Montag is a fireman who gradually notices how wrong things are.

“I–I’ve been thinking. About the fire last week. About the man whose library we fixed. What happened to him?”

“They took him screaming off to the asylum.”

“He wasn’t insane.”

Beatty arranged his cards quietly. “Any man’s insane who thinks he can fool the government and us.”

“I’ve tried to imagine,” said Montag, “just how it would feel. I mean, to have firemen burn our houses and our books.

“We haven’t any books.”

“But if we did have some.”

“You got some?”

Beatty blinked slowly.

“No.” Montag gazed beyond them to the wall with the typed lists of a million forbidden books. Their names leapt in fire, burning down the years under his ax and his hose which sprayed not water but kerosene. “No.” But in his mind, a cool wind started up and blew out of the ventilator grille at home, softly, softly, chilling his face. And again, he saw himself in a green park talking to an old man, a very old man, and the wind from the park was cold, too.

He befriends a former professor, stands up to his fire chief, and fights a truly frightening robotic dog as he tries to get out from beneath the suffocating, normalizing, noisy, inane blanket that society has become.

I found the book hard to put down as Montag began to struggle, then burst from the constraints of a bookless, book-burning society. I found many of Bradbury’s elements chillingly prescient–television panels that took up whole walls, shows that were supposedly real that viewers became personally involved in, and entertainment that’s dumbed down so it offends no one, and challenges no one.

This is a timeless book about censorship, individualism, society, the love of books and the challenge of intellectual pursuits. I wished for more, and more rounded female characters, a lack Bradbury defends (somewhat grumpily) in the Coda of my edition.

What book would I save, were I living in that world? Leaving aside Shakespeare and the Bible as obvious choices, I’d probably choose Possession by A.S. Byatt. It’s one of the richest and most satisfying books I’ve ever read–romance, history, mystery, poetry, religion, science all wrapped up in a good story. More importantly, though, it helped push me out of a rut in my life of a job I didn’t care for and a relationship I couldn’t grow in. Fiction that provokes change and growth is the kind of book that’s held up and celebrated in Fahrenheit 451.

3 Responses to ““Fahrenheit 451″ by Ray Bradbury”

  1. Elle Says:

    I’ll always be grateful to you for mentioning Possession in an entry a few years ago. I found and bought it in a second-hand bookshop a little while later, and I really loved it. It made me think of my own work as an academic, at why I chose it and what keeps me going in it. It really succeeds in conveying the beauty of research, something that’s sometimes difficult to keep in mind in the dayly grind of teaching, office hours and admin…

  2. girldetective Says:

    Elle, you’re more than welcome! I’m so happy to share my love of that book, and I really need to re read it again, soon!

  3. hopeinbrazil Says:

    This was such a powerful book. I still get chills thinking of some of the images. And it’s been several years since I read the book. The movie was sort of dumb in comparison, but I loved the last scenes when the “books” are walking through the forest reciting their contents. Wow!