Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray BradburyTakeaway: Society has a responsibility for its own maintenance.

Unlike most of the rest of the world, I did not read Fahrenheit 451 in high school.  (I didn’t read most books that people seem to have read in high school.)

The story is set in the near future (written in 1953, but still feels near future.)  Guy Montag is a fireman.  In a world where all the homes are fireproof, it is firemen’s jobs to set fires, not put them out.  When people are found to have illegal books, it is the firemen’s job to burn the houses including the books after the people have been arrested.

After Guy meets and begins a friendship with 17 year old free thinking Clarisse, he starts questioning his life. Eventually he steals some of the books he is supposed to be burning and reads them.  He starts questioning society and why no one reads or remembers.  (Part of the subtext is that there is always noise and video and pictures so that people no longer want to read.)

The story is well known, and I will not reveal the ending, but it is fairly predictable.

One of the problems of many of these dystopian views of the future is the problem of remembering the past.  It is not as pronounced here as in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (where it is suggested people can’t remember what it was like before, although that was only 15 or so years.)  But still there are only a few that seem to remember what it was like before.  This just does not make sense when there is a documented problem of people being nostalgic for the past and always remembering the best of the past and forgetting the bad.

This is commonly thought of as a book about censorship.  But Ray Bradbury (at least according to Wikipedia) says it is about the dangers of an illiterate society.  This was written in the historical context of the McCarthy era and there memory of Nazi book burnings was recent.

But neither the illiterate society nor censorship alone really makes sense.  If people really did stop reading and allowed books to fall away, then what is the need for censorship?  And there doesn’t seem to be a real reason for censorship other than ‘ideas are bad’.  Maybe I am too far away from the McCarthy era, but I cannot imagine a real ‘ideas are bad’ scenario.  Ideas are responsible for economic growth and technological innovation.  How could a Fahrenheit 451 world continue to make new and more immersive technologies without ideas?  And the solution to saving books (the same one from the Book of Eli) doesn’t make sense either.

Obviously it is an exploration of the idea of an illiterate society not a history.  But as much as the complaints about tv and video games ruining our minds, it just not holding up as a concept.  Reading is up, graduation rates are up, education by virtually any standard when looked at from the whole population standard is higher than any time in history.  We are not in a reader’s utopia or any other kind of utopia, but the fear is just not born out in reality.

I understand why this is a book that is assigned in high school, but I am not sure the problems are as relevant to our world as they were previously.  Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother addresses issues of censorship that is more focused on the types of censorship that are going on now.  And Orwell’s 1984 and CS Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and even the Hunger Games trilogy all do a better job a the political angles of government overreach and oppression.

Fahrenheit 451 is a classic, so I am glad that I read it (and borrowed it from the library so did not have to pay for it), but I do not think it is a great book.  I am zero for two now with Ray Bradbury, so I am not sure I am going to give him a third try.

Fahrenheit 451 Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

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