Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

This is the fourth time I've read this book, though the first time in over 15 years. It's a science fiction classic about firemen who burn books in a not too distant and far too dystopian future. Bradbury is a great storyteller and weaves an amazingly lyrical narrative. It first grabbed me in childhood as an exciting adventure with a very vivid portrayal of the life of Guy Montag, fireman turned rebel.

One of the delightful things I discovered in this re-reading was the idea of the proper relationship to books. The government represented by the firemen sees books as a hazard that causes both inequality (reading books makes people think they're better than others) and rancor (people may disapprove of how they (as minorities) are depicted in books). The citizens have fallen away from reading and are constantly plugged in to their living rooms, which are now nothing other than parlors with wall-sized TVs on every wall. Montag's wife wants them to buy a fourth wall TV to complete the room. If she isn't watching TV, she's listening to audio programs on little seashell devices in her ears. Books don't even register as reality for her; when Montag brings them into the house she is filled with horror at what they mean. Not that they contain horrible ideas, but that their house will be burned down if they are discovered. It's as if the government had already won their point.

On the other hand, Montag learns to appreciate books, first by meeting Clarisse. She's the seventeen-year old neighbor with the funny family (her uncle was once arrested for driving too slowly at 40 miles an hour). She is interested in nature and people. She has real conversations with Montag about things that matter. She is a catalyst for Montag to explore the forbidden fruit he has been roasting for so long.

Like any amateur, he makes a bit of a mess in how he handles things. He tries to convince his wife's friends that they should listen to books but they all recoil in horror. He tries to play cat-and-mouse with his boss at the firehouse but he is not up to the challenge. He eventually has to flee for his life.

He falls in with a group of people who have been memorizing books, to preserve them for the time when the culture is ready. Interestingly, they constantly tell themselves that they are not more important or better than others for what they are doing. They are keeping a trust for civilization. In one scene, Montag is talking to Faber, a former professor who has been keeping a low profile though is in touch with the book people. Faber explains the difference between four-wall TVs and books:
." can't argue with the four-wall televisor. Why? The televisor is 'real.' It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn't time to protest, 'What nonsense!'"
[Montag:]"Only the 'family' is 'people.'"
"I beg pardon?"
"My wife says books aren't 'real.'"
"Thanks God for that. You can shut them, say, 'Hold on a moment.' You play God to it. But who has ever torn himself from the claw that encloses you when you drop a seed in a TV parlor? It grows you any shape it wishes! It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is truth. Books can be beaten down with reason. But with all my knowledge and skepticism, I have never been able to argue with a one-hundred-piece symphony orchestra, full color, three dimensions, and being in and part of those incredible parlors."
The difference is between what's engaging and what's overwhelming. Books are a help in understanding reality, not a substitute for it or a way to tune reality out (though certainly some have used books that way). They help the reader to understand other people, other times, other places. But they don't force you to agree with them. The proper attitude toward books is not one of hostility or fear or submission. It's of wonder and learning and growing.

The book is definitely worth reading and worth re-reading. Bradbury's death a few months ago really is a great loss.

Hear some better commentary on A Good Story is Hard to Find, which is what inspired me to re-read the book. And now I am finally starting Jane Eyre, which they discussed quite a while ago.

No comments:

Post a Comment