“It was a pleasure to burn.
“It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.”
– Opening of Fahrenheit 451
Guy Montag is a fireman, but he doesn’t save burning buildings. He hoses with kerosene and carries a flamethrower to set homes ablaze. The society he lives in, futuristic from the perspective of the 1950’s when this novel was written, has decided that it’s better for people not to be bothered with the problems books can cause. Anyone possessing such dangerous things must be insane. Montag finds it a pleasure to burn. A permanent smile is etched across his face. Yet his hands seem sometimes to act of their own accord. What happens when a fireman steals a book he was meant to destroy?
Fahrenheit 451 is a classic dystopia, read by many in school, and it’s easy to see why. The writing is excellent, one of the major characters is school age herself, and one of the major messages is about books themselves. Are books worth reading? This novel answers with a resounding yes, countering the words of every one of its characters who argues otherwise.
The appeal to a teacher is clear, but there’s more to this book as well. In our modern society, conversations often focus on book banning and censorship, but the kind we see in the real world is distinct from what is depicted in this novel and, I would argue, has criticisms that could apply to the extremes on both sides of the US political divide. In this dystopia, books began to fall out of favor for the simple reason that most people didn’t want to read them anymore. They wanted faster entertainment with less thought. Shorter books, more pictures. Soon no books at all.
Montag’s fire department didn’t start until after people had already decided they didn’t like reading, and their persecution of readers is a form of othering. There are some characters, in fact, who are othered in the same way simply for thinking about things and acting in ways no one else does. There is a character who meets an unfortunate fate simply for being out on a walk in a world where everyone else drives around at wild speeds. There isn’t an authoritarian government here, making decisions from on high against the will of the people. The people brought this upon themselves.
There is, of course, discussion in the novel about controversial books, but the main takeaway, again, is that people didn’t want to read them. Controversial books upset people, driving away whole sections of a potential audience. Society moved away from books considered offensive, no matter which group they had been offending. In the modern US, it tends to be the progressive books that are the subject of bans and that get all of the attention when people speak out against these practices. But I think Bradbury’s dystopia also has something to say about people so far on the left that they pressure others not to read books containing racism or sexism or anything else that would be cancel-worthy in our modern day. Because the people in Bradbury’s dystopia have moved so far away from anything potentially offensive that their entertainment now contains no messages at all. And they’ve forgotten the lessons of history because they’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
Bradbury’s book itself contains a healthy dose of 1950’s style sexism. Montag’s wife stays at home, as do her friends. There are no women at the firehouse, nor anywhere else to be seen in the workforce. When great authors of the past are named, it seems they’re always men, and speculations about the future also tend to be focused on what men will do. The young girl who lives next door, upon my recent reread, seemed to me a form of manic pixie dream girl, existing in the plot solely for the purpose of waking the main character up to the realities of the world around him. She gains an interest in him for no clear reason and doesn’t seem to be acting in accord with her own goals and interests. In fact, she doesn’t seem to have any goals or to be trying to improve her life in any way despite the fact that she tells Montag about some serious problems in it. Problems I certainly would have tried to do something about if I were her.
Certainly, I wouldn’t say this book is a shining example of female representation, and it doesn’t seem to have any racial diversity at all. Forget about any other kind of diversity! But for all of that, should we stop reading this book? Or should we read it critically, acknowledging the time period in which it was written, the views of its author, and the tropes and stereotypes it makes use of?
Should you read this book? Certainly you should if it’s been assigned to you for class. Otherwise, I would recommend it for those who like dystopias or books written in the past that try to predict the future. I would also recommend it for those who like reading books about books or who are interested in the more philosophical questions about the role of books in our society. The plot is engaging and makes for a quick read, there are likeable characters to be found, and the overall atmosphere is not entirely hopeless. If that is the sort of book that appeals to you, I would recommend that you pick up this one and give it a read.