Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury — can books survive?
Fahrenheit 451 was written almost seventy years ago but the issues it tackles are still frighteningly relevant today.
Bradbury imagines a society in which books are outlawed and libraries have ceased to exist. “Firemen” burn any that are discovered along with the houses in which they are hidden. People suspected of keeping a secret supply are made to disappear.
Deprived of literary stimulus, citizens rely on entertainment via TV screens that stretch across whole walls in their homes. Through the “parlour walls” they interact with “friends”, listening into their conversations via “Seashells”. These are not described in the novel but I imagine they could be similar to today’s wireless and cordless earphones.
Bradbury’s main character is Montag, a fireman whose conversations with a teenage neighbour lead him to question his role in destroying books and all the knowledge they contain. His doubts fail to rouse any sympathy in his wife Mildred. She’s more concerned about the prospect of losing the house and her beloved “parlour wall” entertainment if Montag gives up his job.
Montag’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, arousing the suspicions of Captain Beatty. Will Montag be the next person to be disappeared?
Bradbury said he wrote the book at a time of heightened tensions about communist infiltration. Some books deemed to be “anti-American” had already been taken off the shelves. He feared that McCarthyism could go further, banning and burning books just as the world had witnessed in Nazi Germany.
He also used Fahrenheit 451 as a warning about the mind numbing effect of mass media. As Captain Beatty explains to Montag, as films, radio, magazines and books proliferated, they became a “sort of pudding paste” providing instant gratification for the senses but sapping the intellect.
Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending. … More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less.
The novel ends with this world devastated by war. Ashes and rubble are all that remain in the city where Montag once lived. Yet there is one message of hope for civilisation: books don’t need to be in physical form to survive. I
In an ending that reminded me a little of the conclusion of Paradise Lost Book 9, Montag joins forces with a few like minded individuals to seek refuge elsewhere in the world. They each carry in their head, a book they have memorised, a book they are saving for future generations.
One day, they will record the information in books again. Granger does acknowledge that those books, in turn, may be destroyed again, but should that happen, the process will just repeat itself. Granger knows that, like a phoenix, wisdom and information from literature can never truly die no matter how many times they are destroyed by fire, just as long as humans work to keep them alive.
In a radio interview four years after the publication of Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury continued with this message of optimism. He was relieved, he said that that things had improved in the intervening period.
Things are going back in a very healthy direction. But at the time I wanted to do some sort of story where I could comment on what would happen to a country if we let ourselves go too far in this direction, where all thinking stops, and the dragon swallows his tail, and we sort of vanish into a limbo and we destroy ourselves by this sort of action.
Bradbury’s optimism was probably premature. If anything, the issues he highlighted are even more noticeable now.
Bradbury’s Predictions All Too Real
School and public libraries across the United States regularly ban books after protests and complaints from parents that certain titles are not appropriate reading material for their children. A study by PEN America earlier this year found that more than 1,500 book bans had been instituted in US school districts over a nine month period, the result of of a rightwing censorship effort described as “unparalleled in its intensity”.
Now British universities are starting to censor reading lists of literature and history courses. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Geoffrey Chaucer are among the writers whose texts have been withdrawnor deemed optional in case they harm or offend undergraduates.
Libraries are also under pressure: more than 800 have been closed in the UK since 2010. Those remaining open have seen budgets cut and staff numbers reduced.
Then there’s the issue of the influence of mass media. Mildred’s obsession with her television “family” in the novel would have seemed bizarre at the time the novel was published. But it’s not too far off the infatuation exhibited by today’ viewers of reality TV and soap opera. Overhearing people talking about the likes of Love Island, and it’s clear they — like Mildred — are more interested in the people on screen than they are in their real friends and relatives.
Fahrenheit 451 is a prescient novel that weaves big ideas and some astonishing visual imagery.
There’s one absolutely memorable scene where a Mechanical Hound (an eight-legged robotic creature) hunts Montag through the city, ready to bring him down with a lethal injection. In an earlier horrific scene, we witness a woman set fire to herself rather than be torched by Montag’s fire crew.
But the prose was often clumsy and — my pet hate — so overly stuffed with adjectives that it was painful to read at times. I wasn’t surprised to read in Bradbury’s afterword that he wrote the book in a nine-day fury of energy in a library basement writing room. It does feel like a book that would have benefited from more reflection.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: Footnotes
Fahrenheit 451 developed out of a series of ideas Bradbury had visited in previously written stories. His novella The Fireman was published in a science fiction magazine in 1951. Ballantine Books expressed interest in publishing a full length version and asked Bradbury to double the length of his story to make a novel, Bradbury returned to the same typing room and made the story 25000 words longer.
Published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 has never been out of print — my edition from Harper Collins shows its been reprinted almost 40 times by different publishers over the years.
Ironically given Bradbury’s theme, his book has occasionally been banned, censored, or redacted in some schools. His first publisher came out with an edition aimed at high school students that had some words censured and two incidents changed. Bradbury successfully demanded the reinstatement of the original text.
30 thoughts on “Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury — can books survive?”
I agree with your feelings about the prose here. It reminds me of The Bell Jar – a really important and influential book but the writing to me did not give the story its full justice.
Thanks for endorsing my thoughts on the way the book was written.
You’re so right; these issues haven’t gone away.
We used to talk about what book we’d “be” in a Fahrenheit 451 world, but that would be the darkest of dystopias for readers. (I always said I would “be” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, from my list of favorite books https://necromancyneverpays.wordpress.com/2022/08/15/favorite-books-2/).
An interesting question Jeanne. I think my choice would have to be my favourite classic – Middlemarch
It is not his best-written work but has his best ideas I think.
thanks for the insight. I’m not sure I want to read anything more by him
My favourite is The Illustrated Man, a science fiction short story collection I had to buy a new edition of because my old one fell apart!
That really is a good way to know you loved a book…
It was worryingly prophetic, wasn’t it? Thanks for this – I’m overdue a re-read…
Most of our book club members thought the style was old fashioned. I don’t read sci fi very much at all so have no basis for knowing whether that’s true. How did you find the style?
I have the novel to reread, but I was interested in what you say about style.and effect. I don’t remember the dated writing or prolific verbiage, but I do recall the anticlimactic ending which I’ll probably “get” this time around as I definitely didn’t before.
Incidentally, I’ve been following the discussion around UK unis banning or giving trigger warnings in the Sunday Times story, and the report smacks of special pleading. Given the number of FOI requests the paper put out, an insignificant percentage reported outright removal of titles from book lists, suggesting the ST was indulging in a premeditated but misleading attack on woke culture.
The problem for their argument is that there have always been warnings about mass media suitability – film ratings for example, announcements before TV watersheds, helplines to ring afterwards, books labeled as suitable for preteens, YA etc in libraries, sales of knives, alcohol, solvents and tobacco available to restricted age groups. Methinks the Times protests too much, but with deliberate intent to distract.
Maybe the ST didn’t do as robust an investigation as they could have done but I still think we are seeing more of a trend towards trigger warnings.
I read the book many years ago’; your review came as a very timely reminder.
Did you enjoy it at the time Alison?
This makes me want to reread it as well. And his short stories, which were what first drew me to him (although back then I was not into short stories, not like i am now, just his and Stephen King’s Heheh). Dandelion Wine is another of his that I’ve always meant to read and have heard recommended many times.
So many books I mean to re-read but seldom get around to it.
I read this at school and, I agree, its theme is still sadly relevant today. I remember seeing Berlin’s understated memorial of the Nazi book burning which brought me up short.
Um I missed that memorial in Berlin. Will have to go looking for it on my next visit
We had to go looking for it. It’s a representation of an empty library room underground, which can be viewed through a glass panel. Simple but very effective. Always good to have a reason to go back to Berlin, though!
Oh yes, any excuse. I have a friend who lives there which gives an added incentive
I totally forgot about the TV “family” in the book, but yes… he was pretty prescient with this novel – unfortunately. Maybe people like us can keep it from going whole hog into no books at all.
I think my hoarding habits are helping – can’t seem to stop buying books even when there is no space for them. I’m fortunate to live in a country where the government doesn’t see books as a threat to society – lets just hope there is not a regime change
*chuckle* Well, of course, we are predisposed to be interested in a book on this subject!
But tucked into your review there is an alarming mention of Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Geoffrey Chaucer being removed from undergraduate reading lists. Far be it from me to enter that debate from this side of the equator, but it sounds like this is a response to the culture wars. Everybody wants to read stories of their own culture, and even if they are willing to read stories from anybody else’s, there’s not much room on a reading list for all of them. So something (Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Geoffrey Chaucer) has to go to make space for them, and if it’s not done, QED it’s racism, islamophobia, homophobia or gender bias etc.
The days when universities could say ‘take it or leave it, we are experts and we decide what is worthwhile for you to read’ are gone.
I think the university actions over the reading lists are more of a defence mechanism against potential allegations that students will find certain material “upsetting/disturbing”. So even the books that are optional have trigger warnings on them.
One wonders why such students are even attending university, then — presumably just to rack up credentials. If they’re not being challenged to grow, they’re wasting their time and their parents’ (or the taxpayers’) money.
A very pertinent question. The answer is likely a combination of factors. One being that in the UK, the idea was perpetrated by a former Prime Minister that more people needed to go to university – as if that was the only qualification that was of value. So youngsters came to expect that a degree would give them a better/more well paid career. And of course they wanted the lifestyle
Farenheit 451 is an important book. I’ve read it a few times, though never critically. I imagine there are other books about book burning but this seems to be the one that stands out. As someone who grew up reading this generation of SF writers, I was never critical of Bradbury’s often flowery style, but read around it. Much of his writing has a dreamy quality – very sixties! But I can see why you might find it over the top.
[Technical problems: 1. I retweeted your review, but I suspect that for some reason it didn’t take effect; 2. Because I edit two WP blogs, WP routinely forgets who I am and the only way I can then edit The AustralianLegend is to comment on someone else’s and fill in my details]
Interesting to hear that style was “very sixties” because we read this book for book club and most people felt it was a bit old fashioned in its style. So now we understand why.
Re your technical problems – I don’t know why the retweet didn’t work sorry. That problem you’re having with being unable to edit your blog sounds rather odd. I have three WP blogs and don’t get any issues with editing. I just go to the main admin screen and “switch site”.
This is a book which, somehow, I’ve never read. As I went through your review, seeing how prescient his thoughts had been – sadly – I resolved to read it soon. Then the downer, describing its style. Oh dear. What to do?
The problem I had with the adjectives lessened as the novel progressed. Maybe that will help you make a decision. It might just be my problem…