News & Observer’s Wake County Book Club review contest. 2003.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
The protagonist in this book, a fireman whose job is to burn books, is a lost soul scarred by the harsh sociological nightmare of his future world. He is really the only character in the book: his wife and boss are ciphers representing, respectively, limp media addiction and ruthless macho power. Ray Bradbury never worried about being politically correct, and this short novel dates itself to the 1950’s in several ways while serving up a timeless message uniquely and strongly, well placed in the long lineage of twentieth century “Brave New Worlds.” It also accomplishes what all great science fiction must: an interesting and believable technical device (that marks it as SF) and enough literary and emotional content to make us want to read it. A diatribe on media, propaganda, and apathy, Fahrenheit 451 captures your mind and heart not with the fate of its hero but with the quality of its message: the freedom of ideas is an essential component of a fully human existence.
Before you can reach such lofty ideals, the story puts you in the suburb from Hell, where a robotic beast with infallible senses and poisonous needle teeth patrols the streets, sniffing out victims on the hit list of the invisible totalitarian government. Montag, the angst-filled fireman, cannot relate to his delusional, suicidal wife, nor to his genial but calculating boss. He does relate, however, to the victims of his work, and to the messianic teenager next door, who is the conscience of the book. From her he gets sensual but platonic infusions of radical thoughts. From his victims he gets books. The books he secretly obtains and hoards become wedges between himself and the carefully structured web of his existence. Montag never comes to terms with the people in his life – each relationship is cut away like bonds in a liberation. The growth and resolution in Montag is patterned with the insight given to the reader – the realization that is not the books as objects that are important – though they are the focus of the action. It is the ideas contained in the books that are such powerful agents of knowledge and self-awareness.
What is a perfect message for a young person coming of age in the 1960’s such as myself! We had our goals set by Sputnik, our values defined by flower children, our innocence robbed by Lee Harvey Oswald. Most science fiction was published by men, whose social mores seemed derived from the True and Argosy magazines found in my father’s den. Bradbury’s work had exactly that flavor – Rod Steiger played a wonderfully mysterious but unmistakably tough version of Rod Bradbury’s science fiction muse in “Illustrated Man.” But woven into the conventional science fiction is a sharp critique of humanity that applies more widely than any given set of technological evolutions or external novelties. The image of burning books becomes an unforgettable sign of universal malaise.
The fundamental optimism contained in the book involves the resolution of the plot (in case you haven’t read the book). Montag finally finds kindred spirits – railroad hoboes with Ph.D.s – and discovers that cultural knowledge is inherent and persistent in the human personality. A final SF device proposes that anyone who has read and loved a book has a recoverable memory of that book in his brain. “I’m The Book of Job,” he is greeted. “I am Plato’s Republic.” This was a fundamental lesson for me over three decades ago, being more enamored of books and libraries every year. I still love collecting books, but I understand their value. It is what’s inside our heads, not what ‘s printed on the page, that really holds the meaning. And meaning derives from plurality – from a rich multiplicity of images and possible meanings rather than the impoverished “reality shows” that society depends on in Fahrenheit 451. This book is a spookily accurate estimate of how low mass media might take us, and a reassuring good thought for the resilient spirits that want something better.