Immediately upon seeing the title of this entry I’m sure that most of the readers of this blog think to themselves, “Oh hey! I read that book once when I was in school!” And that’s probably correct. The first time I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was in school – high school, I think. So I do not think it will do anyone any great good to recap the novel to any great length in this space. However, some of the themes captured in the book are worth revisiting.
In short, this is a story about censorship and an overreaching government that controls the lives of its citizens to their great downfall (a nuclear blast). The story is set in a future America where firemen have become fire starters. The subject of their blazes are the homes of those who would harbor books and the “nonsense” inside of them. As Fahrenheit 451‘s antagonist, Fire Chief Beatty, suggests – books are filled with nothing and that “nothing” evokes emotional sentiments from their readers which puts undue stress on the populace. As such, books have been deemed a public nuisance by the government and are systematically destroyed when they are found.
The novel’s protagonist is Guy Montag, a fireman who realizes the error of his ways and begins saving books. Ultimately, Montag’s actions cost him his wife (who is completely controlled by the government) and his easy life. At the same time, though, Montag’s decision to become enlightened by breaking Plato’s chains and leaving the proverbial cave saves his life. Shortly after Montag escapes his home city, he watches as it is annihilated in a nuclear blast. The blast is delivered as a part of the war that the country is fighting that most of the population is oblivious towards thanks to the government.
One can draw many parallels between portions of Fahrenheit 451 and today’s current state of affairs. With two wars being fought around the globe and unfriendly countries taking a nuclear leap forward in their missile testing, the comparisons between book and reality are certainly valid. What strikes me as the most stunning parallel between Fahrenheit 451 and our current reality is the lack of a clear “truth” in most cases. For example, how can it be that Republicans say “Fact A” is the best solution to a problem while Democrats say “Fact B” is the best solution – all the while the vast majority of the American public believes that “Fact C” is the best course of action? Further, while public debates over essentially non-issues abound, there are real dire situations that are being overlooked by the pathetic news media.
When was the last time a real, in-depth report was produced on the current situation in Afghanistan? And when was the last time that an in-depth report was biased for or against a particular political persuasion? It’s scary when you start think about all of the ways that Fahrenheit 451‘s themes are present in our world today. Another example – did you hear about how Washington State University nearly banned one of Michael Pollan’s books about the food industry? Why did they almost ban the book? It turns out that large agricultural companies that had some influence at WSU suggested that the book was anti-their industry and should be removed from reading lists.
Thankfully, an influx of e-mails (including one of my own) and phone calls led to WSU putting the book back on the reading list. The university saved face throughout the situation by saying that the entire snafu was related to a budget crisis and that an individual had come in to fund this particular program. Sounds good for the media, but the truth is that a book was almost banned because a large industry didn’t like its message regarding the truth about where our food comes from. Scary.
So I join the chorus of the hundreds and thousands that have before me recommended reading Fahrenheit 451. One final note before I end, though. For those of you that read Fahrenheit 451 while you were in school, I redouble my suggestion about picking up a copy of this book and giving it a read (go for the 50th anniversary edition since there are additional bits of information in the back such as a Coda and an interview with Ray Bradbury). I’ve found that purchasing books that I was once forced to read in school and re-reading them at my own leisure has allowed me to increase my appreciation and fundamental understanding of the books and the issues presented therein. I think that you’ll find the same to be true for you – especially with masterpieces like Fahrenheit 451.