Thursday, April 12, 2007

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Part III in the ongoing series, "Books that everyone else read in school but me": Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

This book is widely regarded as one of science fiction's canonical classics, and it's one of the few science fiction books to really have a massive cultural impact; that it did not make the Times list is criminal. Summarizing it is perhaps unnecessary: in an unspecified future period, homes have been made fireproof and the role of firemen has mutated into the role of book-burners, cauterizing the wounds that literature and art have given society. The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman who has sudden qualms about burning books and begins to horde them in secret.

The thing about this plot is that it's inherently ridiculous. If Bradbury had pitched this book to you, you probably would have thought the notion of book-burning was a little hokey. But Bradbury, like the best science fiction writers, can turn hokey concepts into believable narratives because of the weight of his striking prose. The way Bradbury writes is really unmistakable, but somehow unquantifiable at the same time.

The theme here is the rise of anti-intellectualism. Bradbury's world is one in which real literature and art are dead, not because a fascist regime killed them, but because we voluntarily put them to sleep because they discomforted us. Montag's wife Mildred lives in a world that is populated only by her "family," recorded television shows projected onto the living room walls that allow you to become a participant. One wonders if Bradbury updated Fahrenheit for today, what he would make of reality tv. The hip thing for teens to do is street race--the billboards, a young girl makes Montag notice, are actually stretched out so that you can read them at ridiculous speeds--and by the carful they die, unmourned by parents who hardly knew they existed. America is at war, but no one knows or care with whom or how it might affect them. People are completely unanalytical about their own lives to the point where they hardly exist at all.

There is a point at which Montag, fed up with the shallowness of his wife and her friends, grabs a collection of poems and reads 'Dover Beach' at random. The last lines of the poem make one of the women cry, which settles the matter for Mildred--all literature does is make you cry; it's not fun like her "family." Bradbury did not choose 'Dover Beach' at random--Mildred's friend says that she doesn't know why she cries, but she cries because that's what the last lines of 'Dover Beach' do to you. They make you face the confusion, the isolation, the uncomfortableness of what it really means to be alive. 'Dover Beach' makes you cry, so you shut it in a box, throw it away, or you burn it. That's the future that Bradbury wants to prevent--one in which we voluntarily destroy our ability to look at ourselves and the short span of life we're given. No one cares or notices when kids die in car crashes because the devaluation of literature means the devaluation of life.

Side note: This version of Fahrenheit 451 includes two short stories by Bradbury: "The Playground" and "And the Rock Cried Out." I haven't read a short story by Bradbury in years, so I read them as soon as I finished the book, but they were oddly unsatisfying. It's as if Fahrenheit 451, though short (~150 pp.) has been given enough room to develop the complexity of its ideas, whereas the two short stories are simply novel ideas, twists without narratives to accompany them. If you get this edition, skip the stories and read Dandelion Wine instead.

Next up: Part bazillion in the ongoing series, "Books I ought to be reading to class but am not."

5 comments:

Carlton said...

Did you go to a Christian high school? I did. I had to this "books that everyone else read in school but me" thing a few years ago...with many of the same books.

Christopher said...

What else did you read?

Carlton said...

Lord of the Flies
1984
Catcher in the Rye
Great Gastby
some Edgar Allen Poe
some other stuff I can't think of

Christopher said...

Well, now I believe I have read all of those.

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