Fahrenheit 451, brilliant book then and now.
Charlotte Stein soaks up some rays while reading Fahrenheit 451.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
A few weeks ago author Ray Bradbury died at the age of 91. His obituaries made him sound like a very nice, well liked man. He worked hard to establish a career as a writer – no sense of entitlement in his generation! In fact there was a new story in the New Yorker the week before his death.
I thought I’d like to read his most well-known novel, Fahrenheit 451, again. I found my copy – a 1987 edition of the book and settled down to re-discover why this book is still being read by young people today. Published in 1950, Fahrenheit 451 describes a world where firemen start fires rather than extinguishing them. They burn books – and because of this novel we all know that paper burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a world where there are mechanical hounds – horrifying creatures; where teenagers are killing each other, dying in car wrecks.
We meet Guy Montag, a 30-year-old fireman, who begins to question his job. He meets a freethinking young woman who challenges him to think! When Guy steals a forbidden book the reader is teased with the line he reads when he opens the book at random, “Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine”, sending this reader to Google to find the book it is in – it popped right up so I’m obviously not the only one who has done so. I felt like I was preparing to write a high school essay because this book is perfect for high school students, and is in fact still being widely taught. Teenagers today, many of whom are reading so many contemporary dystopian books, will enjoy this book written so long ago, and the very dystopian world it describes.
Montag begins to think about the fact that books contain ideas – “a man had to think them up”. When a woman chooses to die – to burn with her books - Montag realizes there must be something important here. Bradbury discusses writing – and books – the development of “condensed” books – think about how little content most newspapers now have. With the exception of the New York Times, and occasionally the National Post, we find ourselves wanting more. He also writes about books with more and more cartoons – think about graphic novels. “The mind drinks less and less”, he writes, but sex magazines sell well – think about Fifty Shades of Grey!
Montag’s superior realizes that Montag has taken a book and assures him that it happens to others – the temptation to find out why some people value books – but his boss also tells him that fiction says “nothing” and that non-fiction is “worse”.
"We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over." A quote from The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell. When Montag reads this he knows there is magic in books that he must experience no matter the risk.
This is also a world where there is a hatred for the United States, having won two atomic wars in the 1950s, the rest of the world lives in poverty, resenting the affluence of America. There are also rooms with giant screens on all four walls – think about how big many televisions are today – think about “reality shows” and it is not such a stretch to imagine this actually happening.
A very wise Bradbury writes, “Number one the quality of information. Number two the leisure to digest it. Number three: the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.”
A brilliant book in 1950 – and still brilliant today, Fahrenheit 451 is a book lover’s book. Bradbury was a man who once rented a typewriter for 10 cents per half hour to write his stories, he says it cost him $9.80 to write this novel. The book I own has an afterword by Bradbury who writes about the years following the publication of Fahrenheit 451 when editors and publishers were “editing and abridging” books to remove content that might offend. There is more than one way to burn a book.