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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury — can books survive?

Cover of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury showing a futuristic fire man burning books.

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 Inspiration

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.

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