The ritual of burning books has been around for as long as we have been printing the things. Books are vehicles of thought and elicitors of questions. They are written by individuals (or perhaps a couple of individuals) and read by individuals. To read a book is to have a conversation with someone separated by a vast ocean of distance or time, and so they act as the scrambled notes of washed up bottles. It is this aspect of books, its conversational aspect, that sets it apart from the passive, mass media hypodermic drugs of radio and television- and this is also what makes them so dangerous to the practitioners of conformism. When the Aztec king Itzcoatl ousted the rival Tepanecs from their seat as the dominant Mesoamerican tribe of the Valley of Mexico, he ordered the burning of all their historical codices. Through the incineration of these codices he was able to consolidate Aztec power throughout the region by having the state manufacture a history and a religion based around the worship of the Mexica god Huitzilopochtli.
This brings me to last week’s book, Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451. There are echoes of Itzcoatl, the Nazis, and a dozen other book-burners from human history in the book’s straight-up creepy depiction of a futuristic United States. In the novel, the state similarly has edited its history to create a truth that suits their narrative. However, as Bradbury himself has many times pointed out, the true message of the novel is not about book-burning per se. There is no sinister despot, no secretive oligarchy, no Duce del Fascismo, no Big Brother. In the world of Fahrenheit 451, the change to dystopia is brought about by the masses themselves. The theme is not so much a condemnation of censorship as it is a warning of an illiterate culture, one which- in this case- is shaped by rapid technological advancement and mass media exploitation. In the novel, firemen have become the guardians of public peace of mind, and set about burning any books that aren’t sex magazines or comic books. The idea is that books, as opposed to mass media, encourage individual thought as opposed to collective happiness, and that therefore books will inevitably make some sects of the population sad. It is better that society remain happy and unenlightened; that there be no conversation of any substance. The people themselves got tired of reading, abandoning it for the wanton entertainment of sports and television. Books would inevitably offend special interest groups- and we don’t have to look too far in our own world to see the tendencies toward censorship to suit the narrative of one agenda or another. Just look at all those Christian parental groups that try to ban what their kids read at school (see Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home) out of a fear of losing control and being confronted with their own hypocrisy.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First I want to write in more specific terms what the meat of the book is all about. The protagonist of our story is Montag. He’s a fireman, and just like his coworkers he is titillated by the act of burning piles of Faulkner and Joyce and Thoreau. The firemen don’t go about their job with a solemnness; if anything there is a sense of arousal in the burning. Bradbury’s world is one where simple, fast-paced entertainment reigns supreme. Crowds gather to watch the spectacle of the book burnings. There is a rousing, theatrical swagger when the firemen slide down the poles and jump into the Salamander, and this is reflected in Bradbury’s lyrical writing style. I really found his use of language interesting and unique, and despite the disturbing subject matter, there are paragraphs in this book that are beautiful. Perhaps the most scary passages in the novel are those that involve the firemen’s mechanical hounds- animatronic, eight legged beasts armed with gargantuan procaine needles on the end of a steel proboscis. They are fascinating and terrifying creatures; being robotic they are incapable of feeling, and make apex hunters with their advanced “olfactory” system, tracking down dissidents with cold efficiency. Yikes. Things change for Montag early in the novel when he meets a young girl who makes him question everything around him- in particular his wife Mildred and his boss Beatty. Without spoiling too much- since I really want you all to read it- it’s a story about someone on the inside, someone who serves as an executor of state policy, who struggles to reconcile his life with his changing view of the world.
Fahrenheit 451 is as relevant today as it was in 1953, when it was written during a dark time for the artists of America. Ray Bradbury was outraged at the infringement of McCarthyism on creative expression. I wonder why I picked up his novel that day last month. I got it in a second hand book store in Bath, England, the kinda place the firemen from the book would have burnt down and turned into an Apple Store. I have been craving dystopias ever since reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver a year ago. But with every page I read of Bradbury’s masterpiece, the more my mind turned to the world around me and the current trend towards Populism, the rapid pace of life in today’s world of 24-hour mass media, the exploitative potential of technology and social media by specialist groups, et cetera et cetera. To conclude my little piece, I thoroughly recommend this old book- be it for lovers of Lois Lowry-esque dystopias, badass Wolfenstein-style mechanical hounds, or those interested in sociopolitical discussion. Happy reading, folks. Vowles out.
VERDICT: Love the world building and the poetic, lyrical prose. And as a graduate of Creative Writing, I’m all about novels that shed light on the dangers of censorship and groups that attempt to place limitations on creative expression. That stuff gets my blood pumping. Overall, I’ll give it an 8.5/10!