Fahrenheit 451: what would you do for the love of books

Book cover: Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury (text on yellow background with painted flames)In a shockingly prescient nearly-now, books have been banned, considered damaging to public happiness. Montag, a fireman, torches them for a living. But when a woman commits suicide rather than give up her books, he becomes tempted to try and understand their dangerous appeal.

I haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 since it was on a school reading list over 20 years ago. I recall it as one of the books that taught me that just because a book was on the reading list didn’t mean we would actually study it. Crafty students didn’t buy books until we got to them. Me, I bought everything up front and mostly secondhand; this one was dog-eared and torn, and I raced through it before school even started.

Fast forward 20 (25?) year, and I’d mostly forgotten it – and long since lost that poor dying copy. So when SantaThing brought me a copy I was delighted. Reading it as an adult in the reality-TV explosion of the conformist inane, the vision is all the more terrifying for being 60 years old.

Montag the professional book burner is a rubbish (anti)hero, a perfect product of his world. Even when he is moved to save books rather than burn them, he hasn’t the courage to read them. The saving is an almost unconscious action, but one that continues even as his guilt grows.

When he is pushed into engaging with what he has done by three terrible events in rapid succession, he doesn’t know how. When he seeks guidance, he can’t resist his socially-trained urges to simply react, lash out, live in the now rather than think and plan for the future. The outcome is inevitable, although the ending wasn’t what I expected (or remembered – I seem to have mixed up another robot dog story with my vague memories; possibly Snow Crash or something by Jeff Noon).

The details of media, even technology (unlike so many, Bradbury foresaw wireless communication), social pressure, tv society, lack of consideration of consequences, media scapegoating and pressure to conform are all horribly relevant. There’s all sorts of themes buried here that will tempt me back for another reread: books are initially censored, then banned, because ‘minority groups’ claim they contain damaging content. The entertainment vacuum is filled by inane reality tv and soap operas, delivered by isolating ear-buds – Montag is estranged from Mildred partly because of his own development, but also because they haven’t really talked in years, if ever. And this was written in the 50s – Ray Bradbury must have found the modern world eerily familiar.

It’s not easy reading, although the very familiarity makes the ending seem less neat, less likely, more the rapid close-out of a short story that has made its point (and itself prefers not to focus on consequences).

As ever with classic scifi, women are woefully under served: the fragile muse, the distant wife, the shrieking harridan, and ultimately the entirely invisible – the educated hobos with their memorised literature are all men.

It’s still a great read and a beautifully written novella. I can’t imagine it on screen, so I hope it’s still on the reading lists – and actually studied, not just one of the also-ran inclusions.