This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s masterful tale of Guy Montag, a fireman living in a near-future United States who awakens to the horror of his vocation. Montag’s duty, like that of his father and his grandfather before him, is not to put out fires and save homes, but rather to root out and burn caches of books and the homes in which they’re hidden, providing a brief but exciting spectacle for those in the neighborhood who can manage to tear themselves away from the wall-TVs in their TV parlours or remove the Seashell ear-thimbles from their ears. When someone calls a tip in to a fire station, firemen ride their fire engines out to the suspect’s residence, hack its interior apart with their axes until they’ve turned up some books, and then soak the books with kerosene and set the house ablaze. Flamethrowers are employed when necessary.
At its core, Bradbury’s story contains a warning but, paradoxically, it’s one that tends to sail over the heads of many of the book’s staunchest advocates, no small number of librarians and teachers included. Regrettably, they lead many new readers to approach Fahrenheit 451 as though it were a simple story about the evils of censorship, but there’s much more to it than that. It’s true that the mere possession of a book, unless one is a first-time offender who happens to be a fireman with a very understanding captain, is enough to get one packed off to an insane asylum, but that’s not the result of a harshly authoritarian regime terrorizing a reluctant majority into sullenly pretending for appearance’s sake to forsake books and ratting out booklovers. Most of Montag’s fellow Americans are proudly anti-intellectual, strongly believe that books are filled with useless and confusing misinformation, and genuinely view reading, and particularly the enjoyment of reading, as a sign of a disordered mind.
Several characters, including both Montag’s primary antagonist and the ally whom Montag seeks out, originally, for guidance, tell him substantially the same story. Generations earlier, the pace of life had quickened and new media had arisen and had contended along with the written word for slices of people’s diminished leisure time. Simultaneously, population density had increased and society had begun fragmenting into myriad narrowly-defined, easily-offended interest groups.
In this climate, works of literature were relentlessly condensed in order to complete with simpler but more immediately stimulating forms of entertainment (e.g. television). To ensure that they appealed to the broadest possible audience, publishers and authors dumbed their content down to allow anyone willing to, for example, skim a one-page summary of Hamlet to claim that they had read the play. For the same reasons, they excised controversial and discomfiting themes and language to minimize the likelihood of any reader being offended. The result was that all media products became coarse, simplistic, and bland but newly-published books, because they lacked any audio-visual aspects, ended up being the least compelling. By the time that the authorities got around to repurposing the nation’s firefighters as firemen who hunted and destroyed books, doing so aroused little dissent.
In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury isn’t telling us to be wary of censorship. He’s urging us to continue reading and to never stop challenging ourselves with sophisticated, meaty books.
The quote in the image at the top of this post comes from the foreword that Bradbury crafted for a fortieth-anniversary edition back in 1993. The foreword was used as the afterword for the hardcover, cloth-bound special edition released this year by Harper/Voyager UK (vector-flame-emblazoned cover shown above), which we’re going to begin reading in some classes this week.