by Ray Bradbury
192 pages, Harper Voyager
Review by Pat Black
I’m a little late to this party. By more than 60 years. And there’s an empty chair at the head of the table.
Fahrenheit 451 isn’t Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece – look to the short stories, if you want some contenders for that title - but it is his best-known novel. It’s a 20th century dystopia, forming an unholy trinity with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World.
Orwell examined how political forces could enslave the individual, as well as the state, intruding on our very thoughts. Huxley was more concerned with science, and how humanity’s search for perfection in the genes could strip away everything that’s good in us. Bradbury, writing in the time of the House of Unamerican Activities’ attempts to have books banned from US schools and libraries (and about 20 years after the Nazis invented book-burning as a social event), wanted to look at how the state could suppress freedom of expression, shut down intellectual inquiry and breed ignorance. All three books are important, and continue to resonate with modern readers.
Fahrenheit 451, a reference to the temperature at which paper ignites, follows Guy Montag, a fireman. The irony, of course, is that firemen in this America don’t put out fires - they start them. All books are banned, and if the authorities find out any are being hoarded by strange, musty-smelling individuals in cellars, attics and sheds, they send out the firemen to barbecue them.
Guy enjoys his work to begin with, but things change in a somewhat dodgy fashion when he meets Clarisse, a young girl in his neighbourhood prone to odd habits such as walking alone at night, and peeking beneath the covers of the dreaded books. There’s little to suggest that Montag, a married man of thirty, is sexually attracted to the 16-year-old, but she certainly lights a fire of sorts in him. After Clarisse disappears, and Montag participates in a book-burning that takes a horrific turn, the fireman takes a closer interest in the forbidden objects he’s paid to destroy.
Bradbury was more of a poet than a visionary. Fahrenheit 451 must have seemed explosive at the time – first appearing in episodic form in a new magazine called Playboy - but time has been slightly less kind to it than Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World.
Bradbury, a lover of libraries his whole life, would have been appalled to see bookstores vanishing from the high streets, and public libraries continually threatened by governments of all hues. But, irony of ironies, I read Fahrenheit 451 on my Kindle. Bradbury’s writing career spans the nuclear age and the digital age, but his feelings about the internet and computers were quite clear. The technological revolution was not for him.
And yet, e-readers, smartphones and tablet computers, the stuff of science fiction just 20 years ago, are with us already. The printed book has plenty of life in it yet, but people being able to read Fahrenheit 451 on a whim thanks to wifi - a few pounds cheaper and a couple of days earlier than if they’d ordered the paper version through the post – can only be a good thing for the survival of Bradbury’s work. His hellish vision of centuries of culture, wisdom and intellectual vigour being snuffed out thanks to morons in authority with flame throwers has been outmoded by technology. Although automated books and automated facts only last as long as servers (and remember folks, all hard drives must fail, just as all living things must die), there’s a fair argument to be made that thanks to the internet and information technology, the world is far more literate and better educated than ever before.
Not necessarily more intelligent, though. Bradbury saw the television as a brain-sapping device, and looking at some of the stuff on offer from the schedules on any given day it’s hard to disagree. Montag’s wife, Mildred, participates in interactive soap operas where viewers are given personalised “families”, beamed onto giant wall-mounted screens. She reads a script in order to participate, and the characters speak to her as though she was part of the plot. Witness any number of people attempting to create fantasy lives for themselves on Facebook or Twitter, in plain view of acquaintances who know better but say nothing; these fantasists are the type who would succumb to that sort of narcissistic interaction.
Bradbury’s spot-on when it comes to the box’s power to manipulate, as we see in any number of “reality” shows and prefabricated talent contests. But I was troubled by how our author chose to paint Mrs Montag; “sexist” isn’t a label I’d attach to Ray Bradbury lightly, but in his examination of Mildred and her friends you can feel a dripping contempt for women’s leisure, women’s interests and women’s opinions.
Montag seeks out Faber, a former English professor who tops a list of the firemen’s reading suspects. From there, he learns about a renegade group of academics and intellectuals living outside the city. Montag forms plans to spread literacy as a sort of book group-cum-terrorist-organisation, but his dream goes up in smoke when his reading habit is exposed.
This brings us to the central crisis of the book, and a troubling issue for me as a person. Bradbury sees the world of books and reading as immaculate. There’s no doubt literature and liberty of expression are among the foundation stones of a free society, and I have adored and gorged myself on books since I was a child. But as my father used to say, you can’t eat books. Are they a necessity? My father might have quarrelled with Ray Bradbury about that one. I’m on Ray’s side, but the nagging doubt persists that we can get a little bit precious about books.
Montag, and Bradbury, look to ancient texts such as Ecclesiastes and Aeschylus for wisdom, intellectual fine grain and philosophical guidance, but this does not chime well with practical, day-to-day living for ordinary people. I almost can’t believe I’m typing this, it feels like apostasy, but if you show me someone who delivers Latin and Greek phrases as they might dish out a slap, I will show you a snob. I wish I had Bradbury’s unshakeable conviction about the importance of books, and I say that as someone who has dedicated much of his life to reading and writing them.
A somewhat spiky afterword to this 2008 edition doesn’t help to dispel my lingering philistinism. In one of his many bizarre latter-period fulminations (massive corporations should be trusted to improve the world? Are you sure, Ray?), Bradbury states that if children could be harnessed into libraries before the age of six and a love of reading fostered in them, then “our drug, street gang, rape and murder scores will suffer themselves near zero”.
Bless your heart, Ray, but that’s wishful thinking. What about children who are bored by reading? The boisterous ones, the playful ones, the ones who flower late as readers… yes, even the destructive ones, who would tear out the pages, add glasses and moustaches to enigmatic author portraits, loop cock and balls across the flyleaf and perhaps, if let alone long enough, build themselves a bonfire? They may be crass, but they aren’t all stupid. Books are for the quiet children, usually, the types who happily retreat into corners. As the fire chief, Beatty, notes, these junior readers are the ones feared and scorned the most in schools.
They’re the ones who are most easily bullied, the thinkers, the odd-ones-out. Maybe kids like Bradbury was; maybe kids like you, dear reader. Culture is what it is, and we’d all rather sensitive, thoughtful people were more highly valued. But placing their interests and hobbies above others is high-handed, and a touch disingenuous. Bradbury knew this. Describing Montag’s feral joy in igniting the books in the opening chapter, the author acknowledges that making fire is as much a part of human nature as stories, art, poetry and song, like it or not.
So, while Orwell is the greater prophet, and Huxley is the more progressive, Bradbury is the better artist. Fahrenheit 451 is mired in its time, but it’s a wonderful read. When Bradbury’s prose soars, few writers can match it. Montag’s fugitive hours are breathless and utterly compelling, as is his fellow tramp Granger’s elegy on the destruction of historical narratives – perhaps the most dangerous idea Bradbury touches on. To apply Bradbury’s allegory to modern times, perhaps what we should fear nowadays is not something as spectacular as piles of books set aflame, but something more subtle; an intellectual treachery attained not by striking a match, but by clicking keys on a computer.
Think of all those e-readers, out there already… sometimes books “update” themselves, if you’ve got wifi switched on. Perhaps in the future as technology evolves, we’ll end up with radically different versions of key texts, altered subtly over time, without fanfare… more sanitised, less controversial. Like tapioca pudding, to paraphrase Beatty – but more palatable to the right kind of government. And without a definitive physical text to refer to, future generations might never realise the deception. Now that, my friends, is a scary idea.