Friday, April 9, 2010

"Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury

Summary: Guy Montag is a fireman: he burns books and the houses of people who illegally possess books.  But when Montag's wife attempts suicide and he meets a young woman next door who takes time to think, Montag finds himself questioning the state of the world for the first time.  Risking his own safety, Montag begins to read and consider changing his life.

Musings: Fahrenheit 451 is, of course, a classic, and I first read it in high school.  I must have read it since then as well, since the plot was very familiar, but I had forgotten how short is was (a brief 165 pages!).  Looking at it now, it seems a bit dogmatic, and the science fiction feels well-trod.  Of course, when it was published in 1953 that would not have been the case, but it's eerie how "done" this type of story felt to me.  That's certainly testament to the novel's influence over the past fifty-plus years.

At the end of the book, Montag joins a group of "vagabonds" storing up fragments of books in their minds, hoping one day the world will be ready to write down and distribute the books again.  Although the memorization is intended only as a storage tool, it can't help but operate as a social tool as well, for if Montag wants to "read" a book, he must listen to it recited by another person.  It brought to mind the nature of reading today, which is such a solitary pursuit.  Thinking of the long oral tradition in many cultures (i.e. the Odyssey) or even in some novels (i.e. the Singers in the Libyrinth), it's interesting to consider what has been gained and lost in books' paper backings.

I liked that the novel acknowledges that although there is much greatness to be had in books, books, by themselves, are not some kind of magic.  They are a tool for expression of ideas, emotions, and experiences, but they are not the only tool.  Faber tells Montag, "It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books... Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget... The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us" (82-83).  This reminded me of a fabulous post by Justine Larbalestier, in which she argues, "I don’t think reading a novel is morally superior to baking a cake, swimming, dancing, or gardening, or any other fun activity a teen or anyone else could do with their time. Best of all is to do all those activities."  So I suppose it's funny for me, as an English teacher and avid reader, to say this, but I believe what's important is engaging with the world, with others, with thought, and with life, rather than the medium by which that happens.  I find I get a lot of praise for my reading habit, but I sometimes feel it's given unjustly.  Perhaps I'm using reading as a way to avoid doing life.  This isn't meant as a slam on myself or on anyone else, but rather my attempt to grapple with the ways we live and the ways others value how we live.

Bradbury has an interesting coda where he criticizes what I suppose he would term as "hyper-political correctness."  He complains, for example, about a school that balked at performing one of his plays because it had no female characters.  Bradbury suggests the people in charge of the play didn't object, per se, but rather that they feared performing the play because "the ERA ladies on campus would descend with ball-bats if the drama department even tried [to perform it]" (178).  I completely support free speech and am adamantly against the sanitization and censorship Bradbury describes (happening most often to his works when placed in texts intended for use in schools--kids aren't going to drop dead if they see "damn" printed.  Or even "f***").  And I would never argue an author shouldn't include/omit whatever characters, issues, locations, ideas he/she wishes.  However, I do think a consuming audience also has a right to say, "We don't want to read pieces that aren't representative of our society," or, "We don't want to read pieces that propagate racism, sexism, or homophobia."  You can write/speak what you wish, and I have that same right as a reader/audience member.  Of course, it's never that easy, and there's clearly a level of push and pull; the activist blogs I read will frequently suggest writing to and protesting an offensive person while I think Bradbury would suggest that if you are offended, then write your own.  Because of the unequal nature of society, I don't know that the "write your own" is always feasible, but I'm not sure spending time protesting the crap of obvious and devoted bigots is a good choice either.  (Note: I'm not saying Bradbury is a bigot; just thinking about the concept broadly here.)

So I've said very little about Fahrenheit 451 itself, but I think because the book was already so familiar, my mind wandered into offshoots more frequently than it does with books that are new to me.  I think it's an important classic that should still be read, particularly by students who often are unaware of the issue of censorship.  I also have to give some love to Bradbury's devotion to libraries; probably 95% of the books I read are from the library, and I truly believe in their importance.

***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century Challenge.

1 comment:

  1. I also just reread F-451, after reading "Moonwalking with Einsten." I came to this blog because you read and blogged about both. I'm interested in comparing the social commentary of the two.

    I'm in a book club and we're going to discuss "Moonwalking." I suggested we all read F-451 to see how Bradbury predicted what Josh Foer is observing.

    I'm interested in your thoughts.