I first read this iconic Ray Bradbury novel for my 9th grade English class. And while I may have pretended otherwise, my 15 year-old self didn’t really… get it. Also, apparently while reading it, we were supposed to mark down every figure of speech we ran across and label them accordingly: boy did I do an atrocious job at this, as half of them I just didn’t even notice, and many others that I did notice were marked completely incorrectly (yes, I still have that same copy from 8-ish years ago). But now I am older and I thought I would give this book another go. And did I understand on this second occasion? Well, I definitely feel like I got a lot more out of it reading it this time. And it truly is beautifully written, with some eerie predictions of our present day, made all the way back at its publication in the 50s.
I’m sure many people have already read this book, but in any case, Fahrenheit 451 focuses on the issues of censorship and the control or manipulation mass media can have upon people. The main way in which Bradbury addresses these issues is through the subject of book burning (it’s kind of ironic, therefore, that this book found itself being censored for a number of years, no?):
In an futuristic American setting, we find a fireman named Guy Montag, whose job is not to put out fires, but to find people who have hidden books in their houses, and to burn them. Books are being burned as a means of eliminating negative and dissenting ideas in this society, where people are constantly focused on their positive “families” that play through their television walls, or listening to music through their seashell earphones. Guy appears to like his job and his place in keeping with social norms, until he meets a young girl who has moved in next door to him, named Clarisse. Clarisse is an odd girl, who does not fit in at school, as she chooses to ask questions about the world around her and not engage in the mindless violence and technological lives of her peers.
Once Guy gets to know Clarisse a bit, it becomes clear that she is greatly influencing the way he is looking at his own world and his place in it as well; in a way, Clarisse is like a catalyst for Guy to begin his journey away from the rules of life that he has always simply complied with. Guy’s first act of dissent comes when he is forced to burn down a woman’s extensive book collection with the woman still inside of her house, refusing to leave the site: Guy cannot understand why a woman would choose to die with these books unless there was something incredibly important in them. Because of this, he chooses to steal a book from the fire site, and attempts to learn more about what these books really mean, thus thrusting himself into a spiral that will inevitably lead him away from the people and life he has always known.
The action of this novel sort off starts slowly, simmering until it ignites, and then once again smoothly drips off into the ending. And the ending? It leaves a bit of darkness and questioning as to where to go in the future. I’m not sure I personally connected with the vagueness however, as Guy went through a lot of hardships for too many empty promises and more hard times to come, on the assumption that history will be cyclical. Though I suppose, if you have a cause, you act for it whether or not you know there will be victory. But will society ever really circle back to a time when people question things and want to learn? Or are too many people too far gone at this point to ever really want to change and give up the anesthetized comfort they have found themselves in for so long? And can I really believe that that many people have photographic/eidetic memories that can refill the pages of hundreds of lost books should they ever find the need to become printed again? I’m not sure.
What is fantastic about Bradbury’s writing, however, is that even when not a lot is happening, he is still saying so much; Fahrenheit 451 isn’t one of those books that waxes poetic about things, using as many tricks of language as it can without really saying anything at all. No no, you can definitely tell that every line and every word has a purpose. (Hands up if Michael Buble’s “Everything” is stuck in your head now… Oh, just me then? Okay.)
Unlike my young, teenage self, I can now see why Fahrenheit 451 is so highly regarded, and why it is seen as so important, especially with the way life has become today. But was it a favourite read of mine? No, but I did enjoy it a lot, and I do appreciate what is being said. And more than anything, I wish more books with this much weight read as smoothly as this one did.
[Be sure to check out more reviews on the Cannonball Read group blog]