The really scary fact about Fahrenheit 451 is that it is more true page-for-page today than when Ray Bradbury typed it all out sitting in the UCLA library basement in 1953. How ironic that this is a book about burning of books which I read while I was burning with a fever! The novel follows a fireman named Guy Montag living in a dystopian country which is at war, where people just wanna be happy at any cost, watch live TV all day, listen to something-like-radio and books are nowhere. Since all homes were fireproofed a long time ago, the real job of firemen like Montag is to burn books. Books are seen as stokers of discussion, rebellion and dissent and hence the anti-intellectual public have banned them. Anyone who is found to possess books is jailed and their books soaked in kerosene and torched by the firemen. The only media that survives isn’t much different from today’s reality TV, tabloid papers and 24 hour music FM.
Montag sees crazy people everyday who are ready to die for their books and just doesn’t understand why they do that. Secretly, he has been storing away a book or two at these book burnings. He runs into a new neighbour Clarisse who seems to never tire of enjoying the outside world and asking Why? about everything. One day she too disappears (the system having dealt with this rebel) and Montag starts to read the books he’s been hiding. He is blown away by what he reads and confronts his boss Captain Beatty to talk about it. Montag discovers that Beatty is actually well read and can parry all his queries with this knowledge. Having no escape from this knowledge hating world, Montag is forced to ally with an English professor, kill Beatty and join a band of outcasts who have turned themselves into walking books, having stored it all to memory.
I don’t really remember why I had added this book to my to-read list. I’m guessing Fahrenheit 9/11 had something to do with it. The name of the book is inspired by the temperature at which book paper catches fire: 451°F. Ray Bradbury is good, the simple words ache with poetry but kill with their potency. The author mentions that the inspiration for the book came from the McCarthyism, self-censorship, Nazi book burnings and a future of nuclear war in the 1940-50s. There is not a single thing about the book that in 2007 seems out of place. That is whats really scary about it. At just 172 pages it’s a short quick read. If you can’t find time for the book, at least do read the author’s excellent preface (titled Burning Bright) written for the 1993 edition.
An excerpt where Beatty explains to Montag how and why the world came to be like this:
“When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours, how did it come about, where, when? Well, I’d say it really got started around about a thing called the Civil War. Even though our rule-book claims it was founded earlier. The fact is we didn’t get along well until photography came into its own. Then–motion pictures in the early twentieth century. Radio. Television. Things began to have mass.”
“And because they had mass, they became simpler,” said Beatty. “Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books levelled down to a sort of paste pudding norm”
“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 exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet (you know the title certainly, Montag; it is probably only a faint rumour of a title to you, Mrs. Montag) whose sole knowledge, as I say, of Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbours. Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.”
“School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”