Book Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Title: Fahrenheit 451
Author: Ray Bradbury
Year of Publication: 1953
Series: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.95
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

“When they give you lined paper, write the other way.” – Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Some Spoilers are Inevitable

Fahrenheit_451_1st_ed_cover

Plot Description: Guy Montag is a fireman, and as everyone knows, the role of firemen is to set fire to houses. And to burn books. The houses that have fire set to them are usually the ones harbouring books.
In Bradbury’s dystopic vision of a future, books are banned, and it’s not like any normal, sane person would want to read them anyway. That’s what a futuristic version of television on steroids (and possible crack cocaine) is for – to keep you entertained and happy… and free of questions.

Fahrenheit 451 is a much reviewed classic, so I doubt there’s much I can add to the collective discussion on this book. I read it as part of a Banned Books Club, although I skipped the scheduled discussion of the book because I had better things to do that day.

I loved this book, but it did not mesmerize me or haunt my soul in the way many other books have. Perhaps it’s because (to quote Mia Thermopolis) there just weren’t any girls in the book. I mean, there’s Mrs. Montag, who is a tired stereotype of the housewife who does nothing but watch TV and pop pills a lot. There’s also a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who is the reason Montag starts questioning the things he’d (sort of) always taken for granted in the first place. And… um, that’s about it, unless you count the brave lady who chose to commit suicide alongside her beloved books.

“You’re not like the others. I’ve seen a few; I know. When I talk, you look at me. When I said something about the moon, you looked at the moon, last night. The others would never do that. The others would walk off and leave me talking. Or threaten me. No one has time any more for anyone else. You’re one of the few who put up with me. That’s why I think it’s so strange you’re a fireman, it just doesn’t seem right for you, somehow.” – Clarisse, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

I guess you don’t really expect many main characters in a story that is essentially one man’s internal monologue spread over an entire novel – with the exception of that one other man’s glorious monologue where he debates books against books and gives every book reader instant multiple orgasms.

Even so, I wonder what this book would have been like if either Guy or his boss (or both) had been women. (“Probably a lot more niche,” says the sarcastic voice in my head.)

Fahrenheit talks about a lot of things while expertly driving the plot along a single line. None of those other things can even be classified as sub-plots or side-plots. They’re just peripheral sentences that achieve what paragraphs and pages devoted to world-building in other books never manage to satisfactorily do. Like the fact that there’s a war going on outside the world all of these citizens have locked themselves into.

“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.” – Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Bradbury’s biggest message is obviously about censorship and refined art of banning books. I was truly astounded at the rationale that had been given for the banning of books – all books. It is, in fact, most unlike any of the reasons ever given for censorship till date – “this isn’t what our culture/ religion is all about”, “it promotes dissent/ treason/ threatens the sovereignty of the state in some manner” etc.

No, the world of Fahrenheit banned books because they offend. Anything anywhere is always bound to offend someone.

“There was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves.” 

And this is so pertinent in today’s context, especially when it comes to political correctness (which I am a big fan of), and to what extent appropriateness of free speech can go. It’s pertinent in the face of growing awareness of how even everyday language normalizes disadvantages and marginalization, of how it promotes already entrenched power disparities. People who like to be able to say offensive things without being called out dislike the “PC-police”, calling them the sentinels of Censorship.

But political correctness is not censorship – primarily because the majority of the PC police don’t actually have the power to censor anything. What they are capable of instead is fostering debate, and encouraging people to question the things they do and why they say some things in a certain way. And that is precisely what the Fahrenheit regimes try and put an end to – any form of questioning.

 He also discusses superficiality – probably influenced by a growing television culture of the time. I highly doubt that he could have predicted today’s smartphone culture – after all, even in his version of the apocalypse, all we had were wall to wall television that we could speak to sometimes.

The book speaks about autocratic regimes, and the message sent across is the same one you’d get if you’re reading The Hunger Games. Near the end of the book, the cops chasing Montag lose his track, but need to make it look like he didn’t get away. An innocent civilian who’s breaking curfew is targeted and shot dead on live TV, and they announce that they got Montag. Autocratic regimes like stories end right. They need their happy ending, so they can show it to everyone else and thereby prevent a revolt in District 11. Banning books and distracting people with television on steroids allowed the government full control of the information channels – they could now craft whatever story they wanted to, and no one would wonder.

These dystopic books broadcast similar morals from the last pages of their books. Don’t go in for mass digitization. Don’t always accept the official story without question. Don’t ban books. Books are our friends. But each of these books invariably get reviewers who question the premise, the plot, the characters, and the dystopic vision itself as being senseless.

What’s funny though, is that in comparison to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the opposing Goodreads reviews for Fahrenheit 451 were a LOT milder.  

Next: Book Review – Bhimsen by Prem Panicker

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

  1. Hi, I stumbled on your blog because I’m working a research paper about Fahrenheit 451. I agree with what you wrote; I also enjoyed the book but share some of your same criticisms. I just read this article by a ‘academic’, Daphne Patai, who basically used the book as an excuse to go off on an antisocialjustice/Islamaphobic rant about how institutions are afraid of offending minorities and act as censors(you know the usual crap that people who are unaware of their privilege say). Hence, I wanted find a feminist perspective/counter argument to use in my paper and your site came up in the google search. My perspective on Bradbury is that he is a good writer but is stuck in that white privileged world. The passage that really illustrated that for me was towards the end of chapter one in Fahrenheit that says:”I realised that a man was behind each one of the books. A man had to think them up…” a man, a man, a man…(in my book I crossed the word man out and replaced it with person) But what truly strikes me about this novel is that so many people: academics, politicians, etc invoke its title to justify arguments about censorship. While I am against censorship, Fahrenheit 451 is a piece of fiction, it can’t justify an argument! The book relates an idea, even perhaps a profound image, but it remains a novel, which is neither a scientific, nor social, nor psychological study. I think that Bradbury got some things right like the effects too much television, but he also got a lot of things wrong; the book is his personal commentary which doesn’t hold water in a debate. Using the book as evidence would be like using the film terminator to justify not using computers; it is fiction yet people keep trying to magically transform it into nonfiction. Anyways thanks for listening to my ramblings, and thanks for posting your thoughts.
    Tito

    Like

  2. Hey
    Thank you for commenting. To be honest I never really thought about it that way – that a book cannot be considered a real argument because it’s at the end of the day a work of fiction. (This is also unfortunate because it makes it all the more difficult to use books such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a cautionary tale – much as I would like to.)
    Thank you for helping add to my post through your comment – you raise a number of very important points. I hope your paper went well. 🙂

    Like

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