Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury book coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Random House
Published: 1953
Reviewer Rating: five stars
Book Review by Tim Deland

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Chances are, whether you’ve read this book or not, you’ve heard about it. It’s one of the modern classics of American literature (not just sci-fi) and rightfully so. This is probably Ray Bradbury’s most important novel, at least in terms of his subject matter. Published in 1953–the same year he wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s Moby Dick–it’s also one of his earliest.

The story concerns Guy Montag, a fireman in a not-so-distant future, whose job it is to burn books, which are illegal possessions. Montag is fairly contented in his life until he meets Clarisse, a teen-aged neighbor who seems wise beyond her years and asks him questions nobody else ever has before–namely why. Why is the world the way it is? And, most poignantly for Montag, are we truly happy? Soon Montag finds himself questioning everything he once took for granted–including the most taboo subject of all. What’s inside those books that make them so dangerous?

Many people who have never read Fahrenheit 451 often make an incorrect assumption about its meaning. It is not, in fact, just another book about government repression as often alluded (in Michael Moore’s recent film ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ for example) but is also an impassioned outcry against the dumb-ing down of culture as Bradbury saw it. In his world, it is not government that has forced people to stop reading books (and watching meaningful plays, movies, etc.) but rather themselves. Desiring to avoid the annoyance of conflicting ideas and painful facts, people simply gave up their right to read–and their right to think as well.

For the most part, Bradbury’s criticisms remain as pertinent today as when they were first written, whether you agree with them or not. The future he describes is a frenetic world–where the five second news blurb and video soap opera (eerily similar to certain online role playing games) rule. People don’t have time to sit down and read a classic, and would find all the thinking it required disturbing and bothersome if they did. While the government did not create this mess, it is glad to take advantage of people’s purposeful ignorance, waging wars overseas that nobody actually understands or really cares to (including the widows whose husbands have died there).

It is easy to see how Bradbury’s book still resonates in our increasingly fast-paced, politically correct, and, far too often, shallow society. Besides its ideas though, there are other features to recommend this book. Bradbury keeps the tension at a constant boil, as Montag skates closer and closer to the edge, his enemies all the while piling up against him–including his oppressive boss Beatty, his vacuous and suicidal wife, and the cold metal jaws of the Hound, a robotic dog programmed to hunt down any and all book-reading lawbreakers.

Of particular interest is Beatty, one of Bradbury’s stronger characters, a man absolutely convinced that destroying books is in society’s best interest. While it is clear he is the villain (we’re reading this in a book after all, right?) Bradbury provides him with compelling arguments, rather than making him the jackbooted pseudo-Nazi we might expect. “Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all,” he asks Montag at one point, “People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? …Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it?” People don’t want or need philosophy and sociology and so on, he argues, because that way lays confusion and “melancholy.” And in some ways we know he’s right. How many intellectuals do you know who are truly happy people?

There are, unfortunately, some bad points to Fahrenheit 451 as well. Despite how short the novel is, it still manages to drag at times, particularly during the beginning and end. Much of this is due to Bradbury’s wordy prose. He has a tendency to go off on lengthy tangents, over-describing a scene or action in a way that makes me skip to the end of the paragraph just to get through it. To this complaint Bradury provides his own answer in the Afterword–“If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture.” Er, touche, I guess.

In my final analysis, Fahrenheit 451 may not be perfect, but it’s still an absolute must read, whether you’re a fan of speculative fiction or not. If you haven’t picked it up and read it yet, do so. Now.

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