This is a book from my classic book club list. I picked it up at a 2 for £5 sale and waited a week or two before I was in the mood to read it (this, by the way, is a very short wait on my to read shelf).
I haven’t read that many anti-utopias: only Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale.
Like The Handmaiden’s Tale, the novel is set in an America in which things went badly wrong.
Like 1984, Fahrenheit 451 is a novel with a third person narrator, but the narration follows the main character closely enough to often verge into free indirect discourse. Like in 1984, the world is also plagued by nuclear conflict.
But Fahrenheit 451 focuses specifically on one form of oppression: the censorship of books.
The hero, Montag, is a fireman. But since all houses are now built to be fireproof, he has only one job: to burn all existing books. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which books burn. Why are books a danger to society? Why should they be destroyed? The origins of Bradbury’s anti-utopia stem all the way from the horror he felt at learning about the burning of the library of Alexandria and the book destruction in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. The book was written in the McCarthy era.
It is the book’s antihero, Beatty, who provides us with the most concise summary of how book destruction first came to pass.
“Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that!… Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did… Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! … Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it.”
I will admit when I was reading this passage, I was absolutely terrified. It reminds uncomfortably of the current intellectual climate: from Trump’s attempt to block the publication of Fire and Fury on the one hand to the successful attempt to remove Laura Ingall’s Wilder name from a literary prize on the other hand.
Books are upsetting stuff. If we don’t agree with them, why not just get rid of them. Stop them. Burn them.
It started because not enough people cared about books to appreciate them and the intellectual stimulation they bring:
“Many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet (you know the title certainly, Montag; it is probably only a faint rumor of a title to you, Mrs. Montag) whose sole knowledge, as I say, of Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: ‘Now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.’ Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.”
Fahrenheit 451 is a cry to action if there was one: an attempt to draw us away from the easy consumption of culture offered by “the wall” — essentially a massive TV screen with personalized programming and the “seashell” — a type of headphone which whispers all the latest news into our ear… (this one hasn’t been invented yet, but it does in some ways bear considerable similarity to the smartphone in the way it both provides easily consumable information, leaving its users in a coma-like state.)
I won’t give you any details of the plot for fear of spoilers, but this is a deeply moving and shocking book. I know some people have been scared away from it as it exists on many school reading lists, but believe me, it is worth a read. Especially in times like those.