As has been the case with many books that weren’t required reading at the high school I went to during the 1960’s, I only recently familiarized myself with what is considered to be science fiction writer Ray Bradbury’s best all-time work: Fahrenheit 451. Considered a deeply disturbing book when it was first published in 1953, when I was just three years old, it is unarguably more so now for the simple fact that so much of what Bradbury only imagined then has come, or still is coming, to pass.
Set in a fictitious town that is not named in the book, the story centers around a man who works as a fire starter and whose job it is to burn any and all books he comes across. Categorized as science fiction, the short novel examines the possible outcomes for a society that considers books to be dangerous disseminators of knowledge. Early on, the man, called Guy Montag, gets the sense that there is something wrong with that picture, and his instincts are further confirmed when he meets a strange girl named Clarisse on his walk home from work one night. Unlike all the other people in his life, who are controlled by the government via wall-sized television sets and ear pods known as Seashells, the girl is in tune with nature and the world around her, and she inspires Montag to question his role as a burner of the very information that has set this girl apart from everyone else he knows.
Montag also connects at this point with another individual, an elderly man named Faber, who is still clandestinely managing to preserve knowledge through the use of electronic devices he works on in his secret lab. Together with Clarisse, Faber offers Montag hope that there is a way out of his dilemma, and he eventually enlists the old man’s help to plan how he is going to retaliate.
Mildred, Montag’s wife, on the other hand, is totally controlled by her hedonistic environment, as are all her friends and neighbors. More and more, Montag begins to feel like an outcast, and starts salvaging books from among those he is instructed to burn. He is further traumatized by helping to burn down a house whose owner, an elderly woman, chooses to die with her books; and he lives in fear of the eight-legged robotic dog, called the Mechanical Hound, that lives at the fire station and seeks out violators of the anti-book law. When the hound locates a law-breaker, it eliminates the person by injecting it with poison. And this is what Montag believes happened to Clarisse when he no longer comes across her on his nightly walks home.
After a day and night spent with Mildred feverishly reading some of the books he has hidden, Montag comes to the realization that it is the very knowledge in them that keeps people free. He tries to convince Mildred, but she is immovable and ends up turning him in to the authorities who are, in the book, represented by the fire chief and Montag’s boss, Captain Beatty. While Montag ponders his next move, he is commissioned to burn down his own house, and then turns on Beatty himself.
Now considered a criminal, Montag takes what few possessions he can carry and makes a run for it. His wanderings take him to a camp deep in the woods and miles away from his former home where he meets a group of like-minded exiles who have taken upon themselves the task of memorizing all of the world’s greatest literature before it is lost forever. Their mission is to hopefully influence succeeding generations of the value of preserved knowledge, and the book ends with the group walking away from the effects of a nuclear explosion that has wiped out another part of their former world.
That the book is prophetic is putting it mildly. Not long after its publication, Bradbury spoke of being out for a walk one night and being approached by a police officer and interrogated as to what he was doing out at that time. He also told the story of another time when he noticed a couple walk by him who were not talking to each other. The man was walking along lost in thought while the woman was listening to something through a set of ear pods. It was the first time Bradbury had ever seen them, and he was instantly taken aback by the fact that he had written about something he’d only imagined but that actually already existed.
In Montag’s world, the purpose of everyone’s existence was not to trouble themselves with matters best left to others to decide and to just have fun. Given the current world chaos of our time, one passage is disturbingly prophetic, and it is taken from a pronouncement made by Captain Beatty as he tried to explain to Montag why they had to burn all the books:
“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none…Don’t give him any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.”
I wonder what Bradbury would be thinking right now as to society’s current way of “doing business.” News reports whose veracity is never certain and virtually no way to get at the truth, clouded as it is by rapid-fire updates, mired in pointless information, that come at us via all sorts of electronic devices that continue to widen the gap between us. Entire segments of the population who shoot from the hip politically speaking rather than take their time and weigh all the evidence, of which far too many who still believe that the important matters are best left to others to decide. If nothing else, this book should be required reading of all high school and college students, our “succeeding generations.”
If I am ever at a point where I feel the need to blame someone or something for the sad state of our world today, I will try to remember one of the most profound passages in the book, uttered by one of the book people Montag is moving on with:
“Come on now,” [he says], we’re going to go build a mirror factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them.”