Montag lives in a world where books are to be burned, where firemen exist to start fires, not put them out. In fact, a world where firemen would exist to extinguish fires is out of living memory for almost all of the characters of Ray Bradbury’s famous Fahrenheit 451 – reportedly (untruthfully) the temperature at which books burn.
Montag’s universe – written by Bradbury in 1950’s America – is both unrecognisable and eerily prophetic. The four walls of the living room are ‘upgraded’ to full-size screens projecting an immersive virtual experience; people walk around with ‘thimbles’ in their ears to provide a constant stream of aural diversion.
An anti-intellectualism movement has swept American society, forcing professors and Harvard graduates into ‘hobo camps all across the country.’ To read is to be exposed to ideas, to independent thought. “So now do you see why books are hated and feared?” Faber, an aging professor, asks Montag. “They show the pores in the face of life.” Books open up a world of nuance, of uncomfortable truths, and owning them is an act of serious civil disobedience.
Montag is living his happily blinkered existence as a burner of books until he firstly meets a young girl who doesn’t fit the mould, who brings him to question that which he had taken for granted – and until the day that they burn an old woman alive in her house, her having refused to leave after discovered with her hordes of books.
“There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”
I don’t quite know how this book has passed me by for so many years. I’m obsessed with books, and I enjoy dystopian fiction. What’s not to love? I adored some of Bradbury’s stories in The Illustrated Man collection and felt that he was an absolute master of the form. I feel that it’s almost blasphemous to say that Fahrenheit 451 just didn’t hit me in the way I expected it to.
Whilst the structure of his short stories is so deftly handled, I felt that something was lacking in the structure of Fahrenheit 451. The first two thirds of the book move at a steady pace, but the final third feels rushed towards a climax. The world-building is also more limited than I would have expected, leaving us with a vague and sanitised impression of this dystopian world rather than an intricate and terrifying vision. In fact, I felt that Bradbury was sometimes unclear on where to focus his creative energies, and how to best organise his thoughts – and when he ramps up the pace, I found the ideas to be clouded and the prose became harder to hone in on.
There is definitely an important message in there (even though Bradbury avowed it wasn’t about censorship and instead was about the evils of television). How many of us have set aside something on our TBR pile to scroll through Instagram or Reddit, opting instead to ingest distilled, bite-sized pieces of information? Our constant onslaught of ‘content’ is a real and pervasive.
“Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the Twentieth Century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending. Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume.”
I wanted to love this book, and despite it feeling underdeveloped and lacking in structure and form, I think we can learn from it – and if not so much from the book itself, from the vast variety of cultural criticism it has inspired. I’m off to go down that rabbit hole now…