“The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.”
The first thing that struck me about Fahrenheit 451 was how beautifully it is written. It is almost poetic in style, and a lot of the time I felt like I was reading stream-of-consciousness prose rather than a novel (not that a book can’t incorporate both, of course, as this one indeed proves). I’m not sure why, but I thought that the themes of censorship, knowledge, etc. would be central, and the language would be used to effectively convey these themes, rather than become a thing in and of itself. It ends up being both.
Guy Montag is a fireman; his job is to burn books, which are banned in the world Bradbury writes of. Montag has been burning books for ten years and has never questioned his role; in fact he appears, at the beginning of the novel, to enjoy it. Then a few things happen: he has a conversation with a man in a bench, he meets a seventeen year-old girl named Clarisse who speaks of the joy of the world and questioning things and being free, and his wife tries to commit suicide.
After that, Montag attends a fire where a woman decides to stay with her burning books, thus essentially choosing death. He ends up questioning why someone would sacrifice themselves for something that has no worth. He cannot get these events out of his head and becomes fixated on the horror that he and the other fireman are responsible for.
Suddenly, Montag finds himself thinking about things. His wife spends all day plugged into her virtual “family”. His colleagues do their job without thinking. Montag has to make a choice, and it will not be easy…
I had been meaning to read this book for years, and upon hearing of Bradbury’s death, decided to ask for a copy for Christmas. The book was written in 1953 and it is interesting how many of the inventions Bradbury wrote of have come to pass: seashells pumping sounds into ears, giant television monitors, and a “family” which is not really there – projected via giant walls. Wars, almost barely noticeable, which start and end in the course of a day. Everyone switched off from the reality of things, alienated from the people around them and switched on to instant entertainment.
I think that this theme of instant entertainment was rather more pertinent, to me at least, than the idea of book censorship, although the two are obviously connected. Reality television and 24-hour news are especially interesting to think about when reading this book. Does television close us off from our stories, or is it simply another vehicle by which they are told? Does instant entertainment destroy creativity or develop it? This novel, whilst definitely veering towards the dystopian viewpoint, does not actually answer these questions.
Bradbury writes with great clarity about issues that we can relate to things that are currently being debated, things such as: does the internet isolate people? Does 24-hour entertainment switch us off from the realities of life? Are we so caught up in constant noise that we have forgotten how to be silent and thoughtful?
My take on the matter is that, yes, perhaps these things can and do occasionally isolate us and switch us off from the realities of the world, but that this is not the necessary or logical outcome of the technologies that Bradbury envisioned. In this sense, I believe that perhaps the power of such technologies is overstated. However, that he raised points such as these before, for example, the internet had even been invented is proof enough of his skill as a writer. That these topics are still being debated makes it clear that this book has something important to say.
In the end, I thought that perhaps the overriding theme was one of the nature of human evil; the great “Universal Truth” my GCSE English teacher talked about so often. Are books a threat, or is it what is contained within them? Are weapons a threat, or what we do with them? It isn’t about these things. It is about us.