Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 Cover of Fahrenheit 451, showing a paper man on fire.
Ray Bradbury

I’ve been wanting to read this book for many years – at least ten. I was never assigned to read it in high school, but I bought myself a copy my senior year. I think I read about 5 pages and then somehow lost the book. Since I never got around to reading it, it was a perfect candidate for The Classics Club.

I’m sure most people are familiar with the basic premise – that we are in some dystopian future, where books are outlawed and firemen (yes, firemen) are charged with burning books rather than fighting fires. Our hero, Guy Montag, is a fireman who is secretly hoarding books as he wonders how his life has become meaningless, with a zoned-out wife who takes too many sleeping pills and can’t tear herself away from giant screens showing inane programming.

So off to tramp in the woods goes Guy, with a bunch of other guys, memorizing books written by guys. Not sure how they’re going to populate their hoped-for enclave of intellectualism after the first generation dies off, as there’s nary a mention of any uterus-havers. Minor problems.

Anyway, I read it.

Now a bit from my favorite blogger, Melissa McEwanon Ray Bradbury’s passing:

“Bradbury was famously an irascible critic of “political correctness,” so perhaps he would have found it ironic that it was Captain Beatty’s treatise on “political correctness” in Fahrenheit 451 which really started my thinking on the difference between “political correctness” and meaningful sensitivity to marginalized people:

Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? 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! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did.

…Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator.

This, I knew from the first time I read it, was wrong—though I wasn’t certain precisely why yet. What I knew, viscerally, but could not articulate as a teenager, was that disappearing materials that reflect institutional harm, without or instead of any examination of systemic bias, is a solution to legitimate criticism of privilege, not a solution to harm. And trying to find a solution to legitimate criticism of privilege is the real partner to the anti-intellectualism also at the root of the tyranny in Fahrenheit 451,not the imagined (even by its author) solution to harm.”

Have you read this? What did you think?


5 thoughts on “Fahrenheit 451

  1. Pingback: The Classics Club | Wandering in the Stacks

  2. Bradbury did an interview with the Paris Review that was reprinted after his death. It’s maybe the funniest, thoughtful and most deeply moving interview I’ve ever read. I carried it on my laptop to read it aloud to family and friends. He talks about his childhood and what inspired him to write; I don’t want to say more than that because you’ll want to discover it for yourself! If you cut and paste, this should get you there: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6012/the-art-of-fiction-no-203-ray-bradbury

    All of his other books are classics, too. You won’t go wrong with any of them. —Jadi

  3. I find I share Melissa’s gripe about Bradbury, without sharing her enthusiasm for him.

    Milan Kundera, in one of his nonfiction books, possibly The Curtain, talks about two kinds of people who write novels. The first kind had a point of view, a philosophy, and they wrote novels as a way of demonstrating and arguing for their particular world view. Sartre is a good example of this kind of writer. He developed his existentialist philosophy and uses his novels and plays to clarify and popularize these ideas.

    The second kind of writer lacks didactic motivation but writes because he wants to see what happens. What happens when I put several people together who have different points of view or expectations or personalities? This writer is not interested in clearly expressed ideas that are eventually resolved but rather delights in ‘a carnival of separate truths.’

    I always thought that Bradbury had a little bit of both kinds, but mostly their faults. I think he sets out to be the first kind of writer. His books and stories seem to be didactic, even to the point of being dogmatic. There is not a lot of subtlety: this is good, that is bad.

    At the same time what he has in common with the second type is that his ideas are ambiguous or contradicting. The don‘t seem clearly thought out. This may work well in the ‘carnival’ style novel but fares badly in a didactic novel. I feel Bradbury is simultaneously both pedantic and unclear.

    We know that something is evil, but is that evil television or loud music or advertising or state censorship? He calls out against intolerance yet he himself seems intolerant of others. He does not want restrictions on his freedom of expression but doesn’t like it when minorities or special interests speak out. (Personally I always found him to be hostile to anything that wasn’t white, male and libertarian.)

    Perhaps some of this could be overlooked if he was a great prose stylist and he was able to express himself in ways that were poetic, witty, clever or particularly moving. But I find that he is none of those. I guess what people like about him most is what Melissa found in his writing. She found “its wrongness worked on me, and challenged me to figure out why it was wrong. It made me more sensitive. It helped me build my argument against careless rants about “political correctness” delivered by people of privilege who specialize in willful ignorance.”

    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I am not familiar with Bradbury’s full body of work, but your characterization of him seems pretty spot on based on my reading of 451. Not to mention that he comes off as a bully.

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