When mentioning timeless dystopian novels, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is most likely to be mentioned. The reasons are more than one can shake a stick at, but one of the many reasons is the profound effect Bradbury’s images have on booklovers abound.
It was a pleasure to burn.
Fahrenheit 451’s tagline, “The temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns,” provides a small glimpse into the world Bradbury has created. Taking place sometime in the future and in an unnamed town, Guy Montag, the main character, is a fireman, but not the average fireman. Montag’s job as a fireman is to burn instead of preventing fires. Society has created fireproof buildings and homes, parlor walls with floor to ceiling screens playing around the clock “entertainment,” devices similar to ear buds called seashells that stream constant propaganda and “news,” and a culture full of addicts. Residents are addicted to fast driving, machines and sleeping pills, instead of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Whitman. Mass media is in control. Technology has replaced literature to the point that books are outlawed and a fireman’s job is to burn the possessions of those who read. Montag’s life is routine, until one call to an older woman’s home changes the way he views his life, his career and the world around him.
There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.
Bradbury addresses the control of the media on society through Montag’s questioning of the world. Books are evil and television is good. Literature is no longer needed when there is a film version. Scholars examine worthless things and look for answers to questions unasked, what is the point? Montag’s boss, Captain Beatty, was once an avid reader and recites poetry once read, but now represents society’s dislike and hatred towards books. Books are a collection of contradictions; too much information for too many people to decide what is true and what isn’t. For Beatty, the world is much better now without books. His passion and argument for burning makes even the most apathetic reader cringe:
If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.
But like every wonderful story, there is light at the end of the tunnel and in an ending to end all endings, a large, burning and explosive light in Montag’s case. He is not the only one holding on and remembering a life with literature. He finds others and while the city is submersed in a war, Montag and his recently discovered comrades are waiting in the background to rebuild the city. Books are not dead. Literature lives on and the impact of the written word, whether it be “good” or “bad,” continues. Booklovers unite!
The books are to remind us what asses and fool we are. They’re Caeser’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, “Remember, Caeser, thou art mortal.” Most of us can’t rush around, talking to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.