I now remember reading this book during high school, although that fact had escaped me when I saw the novel perched alongside Ayn Rand in a bookstore in Arizona. I had actually been thinking about reading it, and I knew it was a dystopian exploration of a totalitarian world – so I picked up a copy.
Re-reading this novel twenty-five years later was interesting. It is not a particularly well-written book, and does not set alight the soul as does Rand, although there is some prose at the very end, after Montag jumps into the river and emerges “on the other side”, that is beautiful – and certainly worth getting through the book for. The novel itself will only take a practiced reader two or three days to finish.
Fahrenheit 451 is the story of a “Fireman” whose job in the future is not to put out fires, but to burn books. A society in search of vacuous pleasure has discovered that ideas are uncomfortable, especially those that challenge and take people outside of their comfort zones. Books, as the most effective tool for the delivery of ideas, are to be destroyed for the distress that they cause to their readers. Montag rebels, betrayed as he is by the burning for knowledge which cannot be extinguished, and – well I’ll let you read the book.
Of course all dystopian literature is supposed to make us think of a not-too-distant future when things have fallen off the rails. When society has been nudged and nudged and nudged again to a very dark place indeed. Bradbury is said to have been motivated to write this book by the specter of communism, and specifically the novel “Darkness at Noon” by Arthur Koestler. Bradbury once said in a speech, “The best response is Arthur Koestler… Only a few perceived the intellectual holocaust and the revolution by burial that Stalin achieved… Only Koestler got the full range of desecration, execution, and forgetfulness on a mass and nameless graveyard scale.” I wonder what Bradbury would say about our current university climate and the tyranny of the know-nothings and their un-ideas? Banning speakers, refusing to read books that make them “uncomfortable”, and assaulting those who believe differently. I imagine he’d say “I told you so.” To be sure, we have a long way to go as a society before firemen rush to the rumors of a library, matches in hand. However, but by the grace of God…
This book, like other dystopian literature, is worth reading (or if you are like me, rereading). Because it reminds us that things can go badly, encouraging us to stay true to our ideas of liberty lest they are lost forever for want of those who would defend them.