Every once in a while, I read a book that piques the literature student in me that has been reined in since college, and I have to suppress the strong urge to write lengthy dissertations peppered with philosophical references and jibes at certain aspects of our culture. So I felt when reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury for the fourth time, several years since graduating from school. Certainly Bradbury makes it easy by intentionally writing an, ahem, incendiary book that is overtly critical of a dystopian, futuristic society that is clearly intended as a cautionary tale about the direction he perceived society heading. That in mind, I will try to broadly expound on the book’s general awesomeness as a whole, and not get mired in close readings or turn this into a prolix exegesis of a classic work of science fiction.
On the surface, Fahrenheit 451 is about a dude, Guy Montag, who is dissatisfied with his job, finds himself distanced and alienated from the woman he married, and begins harboring contraband items in the air duct in his home. He is disenchanted with the world he lives in, and finds everyone to be insipid and shallow, with little real substance or character.
What Fahrenheit 451 is really about, though, is censorship, frivolous entertainment, an accelerated and shallow lifestyle, and a search for meaning in a world that has lost its meaning through years of cultural degradation supported by an apathetic yet war-like government. From the flat screen TV’s that fill every home and consume everyone’s free time, to the government-controlled ban on books, Bradbury saw trends back in the 50’s when Fahrenheit was written that have continued today. No, we don’t usually burn books anymore (although as recently as last July there was a book burning for 50 Shades of Gray, but I mean….you know…), but even as recently as 2010 there have been efforts by people (here in Texas!) that this book be banned, or culturally burned, because of its offensive portrayal of certain groups, use of crude language and, controversial themes.
Yet what is the inevitable outcome of banning something from society? It will linger, perhaps stronger than before, and in a different light than it had been previously. It gains power and strength simply because someone wishes it to be extinguished. Such is the case in Fahrenheit 451, and it is books that are the contraband items that Montag hides away in his home. As a firefighter, who starts fires and burns the illegal books as opposed to putting fires out, Montag has access to books in a unique way in his society, and sees people who would rather die than continue to live without these precious, banned items. This makes a profound impact on the passive Montag, and he really begins to question his society and values. What he finds is that his society is full of holes and gaps, and no matter how much value and substance he tries to place in it, it all leaks through in the end, and nothing remains.
The book was written in the basement of UCLA’s Powell library, on a type writer Bradbury rented for $.10 an hour, completed over the course of nine days. It seems a fitting genesis for a book that tells of a time when books are burned on sight, and people are put away for possessing them. It was published in serialized form in 1951, published in book form in 1953, and was also published serially in Playboy Magazine from March to May in 1954. Even at the time of its release, Fahrenheit 451 was hailed as forward-thinking and cognizant of the dangers of censorship and the depletion of quality cultural contributions to our developing society.
Today it stands as a reminder that despite our ever more harried and frenetic lives, despite the advances in technology that separate us while claiming to bring us closer together, despite the ease with which we could simply check out and not care about what is happening in the world around us, both abroad and here at home, we must remain vigilant. We must always seek a life of substance and meaningful interactions. We must strive to build our society up by endorsing its positive attributes, and critically examine what and why people or governments seek to censor something.
Don’t worry. Even if we all explode and society collapses in a real or metaphorical nuclear holocaust, there will be those free thinkers, those societal outcasts, who were hiding out in the woods and memorizing books who will come in and help put back the better pieces of our identity and push humanity forward into a new age, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.
Also, I am now very good at spelling “Fahrenheit”.
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