Over the course of my twenty-nine years, it’s safe to say I’ve read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 at least half a dozen times. The last time I read it was about four years ago, but in homage to Banned Books Week 2011, I decided to give it another look. I’ve now decided that I will read it every year during Banned Books Week as a reminder—a reminder of one of my greatest fears.
The book is only 165 pages long, and yet, it took me much longer than I’d planned. Not because Bradbury’s prose is less than stunning. I believe certain writers are given a divine gift. They are able to formulate sentences in a way that feels almost holy. Bradbury is one of these writers. No, I had trouble reading Fahrenheit 451 now, at the age of twenty-nine, because frankly, it upset me.
It upset me to the point of feeling nauseous one moment and wanting to smash a window with my fist the next. It upset me because even though Bradbury wrote his masterpiece in 1953, it is truer now than it ever has been before. The world changes; with every passing year, I change. Maybe as a youngster at Perrysburg High School, I thought Fahrenheit 451 was science fiction, so I made it through unscathed. I don’t think it’s science fiction anymore.
For those of you who haven’t read it, Fahrenheit 451 is about Guy Montag. He’s a fireman, but firemen of the future are not as they are now. In the future, firemen don’t put out fires; they start fires, in the homes of guilty book owners. In the future, books are outlawed. People who own books are considered crazy, and once discovered, their house is burned to the ground and they’re never seen again. One day, Guy Montag realizes this system isn’t quite perfect, and it starts when his wife tries to commit suicide.
Suicide is at an all-time high in the future. People will do just about anything to die, but people don’t pay attention to tragedy. They don’t pay attention to anything at all, except the TV. There’s no such thing as a leisurely stroll or enjoying an evening rain storm on the front porch—no such thing as sitting around with a beer, talking about stuff. Everything is shallow, meaningless. The president is elected because he’s good looking. War is rampant, but no one cares, because they’re too busy watching their favorite sitcoms. The world is a cultural black hole, and Guy soon realizes he must do something about it: but what?
Bradbury added a coda to the back of Fahrenheit 451. I’d like to give you a taste:
“Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count ’em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book?
Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito—out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch—gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer—lost!
Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepencilled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like—in the finale—Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention—shot dead.
Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture? … The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
Fahrenheit 451 is scarier now, in 2011, than it ever was in 1953, because we’re much closer now to the world seen through the disgruntled eyes of Guy Montag. We’re almost there. We communicate important life statements via text and Facebook. We walk in the door after a long day of work and sit in front of the TV until our brains turn to mush. We walk right past a beautiful flower and think, “Busy, busy, too busy.” Bradbury isn’t only an amazing author; he’s a time-traveler, a visionary, and macabre genius, who wrote a book that points the finger at all of us to say, “Look what you’re becoming, and isn’t it terrible?”
So what are you going to do about it, huh? How about turning off the TV? How about calling an old friend instead of sending a trite text message that says, “I miss you?” How about sitting on your porch with a cup of tea and just looking at stuff? As Professor Faber says in Fahrenheit 451, “I don’t talk things, sir. I talk the meaning of things. I sit here and know I’m alive.” Remember you’re alive today, because someday, they may try and force us to forget.