Fahrenheit 451 – Classically Lacking #9

The honest truth is that when I first read Fahrenheit 451, I was underwhelmed. It is almost unfair, the weight of expectation that a book like this holds. Not only is it a certified “classic” studded with historical praise and numerous awards, it is a book that I expected to love. When I went to the tatty pages of my charity-shop copies of Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights I went with the expectation that neither were in my wheel-house and yet I came out surprised and delighted, satisfied that I didn’t just respect the writing and the authors, but that I had thoroughly enjoyed my time within their words. So, with the glorious 60th anniversary edition in hand, I return to Ray Bradbury’s most famous work. Why? I feel like I missed something. This edition of the book comes with a foreword from Neil Gaiman and a closing section of historical analysis and reviews from a number of other authors, and some reflective words from Bradbury himself. I ignored them on my first read as I wanted the story to speak for itself, but with the added notion of bringing more research into these reviews anyway, I returned for a second read of Fahrenheit 451.

The world looks like this:

Reading is outlawed. Firemen burn our books. Television is king and has advanced to all four-walls of our living-rooms. Seashell radios sit in our inner-ears and whisper melodramas, commercials, soap-operas, to us through all hours in private, incipient commune. We are cold and lonely and derived of personality through the vampiric government-approved, commercially-biased entertainment which dominates us. But there are outliers. Clarisse is a pedestrian, a strange thing in these times, walking the streets, talking, thinking. She encounters Guy Montag, fireman, and reminds him what it is to be alive. He rescues a book from his flames, not the first, and the walls of his world begin to fall apart around him in response to his dissident act, but this is for the better. The walls must come down.

In his foreword for the 60th anniversary edition, Neil Gaiman calls this ‘A book of warning.’ Without being too dramatic I have to wonder if we’ve ever taken that warning seriously enough. Bradbury himself could see that the world of technology and entertainment was moving faster than he could write.

I thought I was writing a story of prediction, describing the world that might evolve in four or five decades. But only a month ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog. I stood staring at them, absolutely stunned. The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera cries, sleepwalking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there.’ – “The Day After Tomorrow: Why Science Fiction?” Ray Bradbury.

Perhaps this is why the story did not click with me the first time that I read it. It is science fiction of the past. A vision of the future, born 66 years ago, and long since advanced beyond. This is not a worthy criticism, but it can make it difficult to comprehend Bradbury’s vision, at first. On this second read through it became clear that although technology has advanced beyond what Bradbury predicted, there are aspects of his tale which strike true today. No one is burning our books, thank goodness, but his fear of technology transforming entertainment into something so all-encompassing that it could absolutely consume someone’s life, someone’s personality, and outside connection with the world to the point that it reduces them to a medicated husk, is surely a possibility of right now. America’s opiate crisis, and our access to infinite content, paints a picture disturbingly close to what Bradbury describes within the pages of Fahrenheit 451. Orwell’s 1984 is the go-to text for comparison to todays situation, our constant surveillance bringing forth cries of Big Brother! but I feel as though Bradbury’s warning strikes closer to the truth of the now.

His vision is highly disturbing. The citizens of this world are complicit in the dystopia which has formed around them. Beatty – fire captain and Montag’s boss – is a clearly intelligent man yet is a determined advocate of book burning. One line in particular, said from Beatty to a woman who refuses to leave her burning house and book collection, sums up his peculiar position:

None of those books agreed with each other. You’ve been locked up here for years with a regular damned Tower of Babel. Snap out of it! The people in those books never lived. Come on now!

The Tower of Babel is a reference from The Book of Genesis, a structure built by the Babylonians in order to try and reach the heavens. The story goes that God confused the language of the workers building the tower to the extent that they could no longer understand each other, forcing them to scatter across the globe.

The Tower of Babel

Beatty references this passage as it underlines why he is so committed to the burning of books. Like Montag he has felt the call of the page and did indeed give in to these urges, but his response to literature is opposed to our hero’s. Beatty is revolted by the contradiction of books. No two books agree with each other completely. One book offers one answer, another contradicts it. Some books refuse even to agree with themselves. Questions aren’t answered, they multiply. A book collection is like the confused languages at The Tower of Babel, and with all those incoherent voices rattling around in someone’s head Beatty believes that the only possible outcome is madness. To find the One True Answer, these voices, the infinite viewpoints, the subjectivity, of books must be silenced. To silence them, Beatty burns.  

Beatty acts out of fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of living in a world which is not black and white. Fear of dying before he knows what it all means. Books seem to promise answers. The words of the wisest authors must surely contain the knowledge necessary to transcend the human condition, Beatty thinks. He is of course wrong. Authors create questions, not answers. When Beatty finds this, he finds fear.

Mildred – Montag’s wife – doesn’t have Beatty or Montag’s curiosity. She has the three-walls of the television. She has the hope of the fourth wall closing in around her. She has the comfort of the completely unchallenging mush that spreads like a suffocating blanket over her sense’s hour after hour after hour. She has sleeping pills to numb the lack of visual stimulation at night. During these sleeping hours she is not left to be a victim of silence. Her Seashell radio ear pieces stifle imagination, thought, consideration.

In the walls, the pills, and the radio, there are no questions. It is the world that Beatty must surely aspire to see. It is a world of a single, unified voice. The languages of Babel have been snuffed out by fire.

Other forms of entertainment that Bradbury highlights are street racing, fun parks, and window smashing. Although he never goes out of his way to underline any of these activities as bad, they are all linked by their mindlessness. Indeed, many legal activities which remain available to the citizens of this world are undoubtedly beneficial. Sport and physical education remains a key element of schooling, and I’d doubt many would make much of a case for this being a wholly terrible thing, but without the balance of activities, lessons, and books which could spark constructive thought, analysis, or imagination, the population is turned into a ghoulish horde of physically fit but mentally restricted husks, perfect fodder for the cycle of war.

A dour note, for sure.

But in Clarisse, in Montag, and in Faber – a rebellious spirit whom Montag seeks out as his dissidence is revealed – hope springs. These characters do not seek answers, but questions. Unlike Beatty they do not see the unwavering sea of voices in books to be a frightening prospect, but a fantastic one. Each voice provides a new question, a new experience, and although none will provide any kind of universal truth, in them there are always lessons to be learned.

Hope is the note on which Bradbury ends, and also the feeling that I was left with as I closed the pages of the book. It is a grim fact that much of Bradbury’s ‘What If?’ world has become what is. It is a grim truth that men like Beatty exist today, men who would silence the multitude of voices, the cacophony of noise, in favour of only hearing their own muted tones. It is also true that it would be difficult for those men to win. That multitude represents itself in forms that Bradbury would not have been able to predict when he wrote this book. Still, they manifest in literature, but also in films, and even on television, which was once the lowest-brow of low brow entertainment and is now in a golden age of long-form storytelling. The internet, dark and wicked a place as it may sometimes seem, is a place where morons like myself can ramble on about their opinions, their likes and loves, where they can make a name through their own voice, creating blogs, videos, podcasts, and copyright dodging cartoon porn. It may not all be created equal, and much of it I’d prefer to avoid, but the very fact that it exists only serves to amplify this Tower of Babel. For all the evil in the world, anyone who would wish to silence the sound would have a real fight on their hands.

And so, like Bradbury does, I’ll end on a happy, hopeful note.

I was quite wrong about this book the first time around.

It is tremendous, relevant, scary, and should be read by all.

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