Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451

February 2, 2010

Fahrenheit 451 (1950)
Ray Bradbury (Ballantine, 1989)
185 p.  First reading.

I believe that Fahrenheit 451 is usually grouped together with Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World as a leading example of dystopian literature, a prophetic novel that warns the modern world against what it might become should certain temptations be given rein.

My paperback copy proclaims the book a “Classic Bestseller About Censorship” (“More Important Now [1989] Than Ever Before”).  It is true that 451°F is “the temperature at which books burn”, and book burning is the central occupation of our hero, Guy Montag.  It almost seems too easy: who could be less sympathetic than a book-burner?  Eugenics has its defenders, which makes Huxley’s novel important to keep around, but nobody now defends book bonfires.  I was worried that Bradbury’s novel would be a kind of liberal pep talk, preaching to the choir about the evils of censorship, carefully hitting all the approved themes, and not once doubting itself.

In fact, Bradbury has done something more interesting. The book is not so much about censorship as a political project as it is about a personal struggle to overcome intellectual and spiritual complacency.  The central argument against books is not that they are dangerous to the state, but that they are contradictory, confused, unreliable.  Bradbury presents freedom not as a good for its own sake, but for the sake of being intellectually alive, for the sake of joining in a great conversation that ennobles the mind and enlarges the inner life.  In Bradbury’s fictional society, books are seen as too complex, too troubling — not just by the state, but also, and maybe especially, by the people.  Instead, they are absorbed by television, which presents everything in a simple way, always careful not to provoke reflection.

The relevance of the book for us, then, is that it draws our attention to the effects of mass media on our inner lives, and to the special merits of that particular agent of culture called the book.  In an age when much of our heritage — literary, artistic, and religious — is falling into forgetfulness, obscured by new kinds of media cultivating novelty and immediacy, the book issues a decidedly un-hip imperative: remember!

3 Responses to “Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451”


  1. I read this as a teenager and was greatly moved by it, although I don’t recall the details. Bradbury is a not-negligible writer, I think, although not a great. Dandelion Wine has been strongly recommended to me but I haven’t gotten to it yet.

  2. Janet Says:

    I love that book.

    AMDG

  3. cburrell Says:

    I read Dandelion Wine last year (I think) on Janet’s recommendation, and I enjoyed it very much. It’s a book to read in the summertime. On balance I liked it better than Fahrenheit 451, but the books are so different that the comparison isn’t very meaningful.

    I’ve been away on holiday all week, which is why I didn’t see your comments until now. Thanks for leaving them anyway.


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