Wall-sized televisions that simulate interaction and communication with the person existing within the confines of the ‘living’ room don’t seem much like science fiction anymore, but when Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in the late 1940s, he anticipated much that has since come to pass. And although the technology—ear buds with wireless communication capabilities, robotic creatures with homing devices—make this fascinating science fiction, the reason this novel has remained popular and very much worth reading is that it both warns of then contemporary threats to liberty and anticipates a future when communication is just a constant stream of shallow information, without any real meaning. The onslaught makes it impossible to think deeply.
The novel is titled after the temperature at which pages of a book will burn. In interviews, Bradbury says that he asked around about what that temperature was and got an answer from the LA Fire Department, and hoped that it was right.
Montag is a fireman, but in Bradbury’s vision of the future, firemen don’t put out fires; they create them. In fact, it is against the law to read books, and so anyone caught having books in the home has his or her house burnt down by the fire department and is then carted off to prison.
As the novel opens, Montag meets a teenage girl, his neighbor, who enjoys life, asks many questions, is intuitive about him and reads. She fascinates him. Montag is also fascinated by the fact that some people will risk their homes in order to read. When he goes to start a fire at a home of a woman who refuses to leave, who decides that she will die in the fire with her books, Montague can’t put it out of his mind. He does what must tempt any fireman—he steals a book. And then his life really explodes. Because in reading, he finds a connection to others, to their thoughts and hopes. Books are living documents of human struggle.
I realized recently that it was already time for celebrating ‘banned books,’ and that I had been too busy to do much about it. So, I thought it would be fun to have another look at Fahrenheit 451. I think the novel is paced differently than some novels written today. There is a lot of action and a lot of danger; but the climax comes earlier and the resolution is a bit longer. I found this interesting—that the resolution was given so much weight, that it really did matter as much as the action.
And yes, Fahrenheit 451 is a living document of human struggle, a book that has stood the test of time and will engage the reader with its poetic language and its fast action. The more sinister elements of the totalitarian society are still, unfortunately, fresh warnings.