As I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, the day that Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury was out-ruled as a book club choice I almost had a mutiny on my hands. Not only that but, much to my embarrassment, I had never previously considered picking it up, after having had a couple of lacklustre experiences with dystopian fiction in the past.
Any novel with books as its main topic, albeit the blasphemy of book burning, is bound to be a hit with an avid reader. Fahrenheit 451, as well as being the temperature at which books burn, provided with me with an entire afternoon’s worth of entertainment huddled up in my tent sheltering from the elements outside.
Guy Montag is a fireman. However, with the birth of completely fireproof houses, in the world of Fahrenheit 451 a fireman’s traditional role had become obsolete and instead he scours the city hunting for people harbouring hated books, objects that have become outlawed in a world where technology and ignorance reign supreme. Everything is as it should be, until he meets Clarissa that is. Bumping into her one day in the street (a rare occurrence in itself since there are barely any pedestrians in the city) the waif-like, nature loving teenager ignites something within Montag (no pun intended) that allows his mind to stretch a little further. What is so special about books that society feels the need to destroy them? Surely something that would occasion such a reaction must hold something worthwhile within? Such ponderings are dangerous and Montag knows it.
Following this strange meeting and the attempted suicide of his seemingly bird -brained wife Mildred, the fireman can take it no longer, stealing a book from an old woman’s house on one of his ‘raids’ and storing it inside his house with others. Will he be found out? Is he soon to feel the wrath of the terrifying robotic ‘Hound’? Only Bradbury can tell.
Fueled by the memory of regimes who partook in book burning on a huge scale (e.g. Nazi Germany) and deeply frustrated by his own country’s attitude towards the freedom of expression and the demonisation of certain works of literature, Fahrenheit 451 is widely considered to be one of Ray Bradbury’s finest and most famous works of fiction. The relevance his unique alternate reality has to our own lives and history makes Montag’s tale all the more frightening. There are areas of the globe that still indulge in heavy censorship and even public book burnings. Could we stoop to this ourselves once again in our own lifetime?
Bradbury’s vision of the future on a domestic level is eerily accurate – a world of TV walls and speeding cars where nobody has any desire to speak with or listen to each other. A world hedonism, ignorance and, according to the authorities, therefore ‘happiness’. Thankfully in our world there is still room for a good book.
The only downfall this novel (or novella? It is only 172 pages after all) had is how much I accidentally hyped it up in my mind, meaning that I was bound to feel let down in some capacity. Guy Montag is a deliberately weak-willed, frustrating character. Part of me wanted a hero I could admire in this petrifying world, but would that have worked as well as a story? Certainly not. Part of me also wonders whether Bradbury allowed his politics to permeate his art a little too much for my taste. A world that bans and destroys all books for the sake of people’s ‘happiness’ seemed a little flimsy in its reasoning for me at times and provided a little too much of a forced opportunity for Bradbury to be, well, perhaps a little snobby in the face of 1950s families rolling out their dreaded television sets for their evening entertainment. Hmmm…
Looking at the dilemma from 2013 I can promise you Ray, a little bit of Dickens coupled with a little bit of Downton ain’t such a bad thing…
Burning Books Page1 by Jason Verwey via Flickr