I resisted Fahrenheit 451 for a long time. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was to do with the fact that it is often classified as dystopian, and I have a general distaste for dystopian novels. Perhaps, because books are sacred to me, I couldn’t bear the thought of a world where they were illegal and burned on sight. Perhaps I was afraid that I would be disappointed in it, as I have been in many dystopian books I’ve tried over the years.
I should have trusted Ray Bradbury.
In the preface of this edition, Neil Gaiman wrote that the best science fiction seeks to answer the question, “What will happen if things keep going as they are now?”. In Bradbury’s case, the ‘Now’ was the 1950s, when families often gathered around the television every night instead of talking to each other, the political world was awash with turmoil and accusations, and the world seemed to be on the brink of a devastating war. Out of this was born the story of Fahrenheit 451 and an America where people spent their days watching giant screens showing programs filled with inane stories, or drove around the city as fast as they could. Children were taught nothing. Married adults failed to care about their each other. People left nothing behind when they died, and they gave nothing to each other. Nothing mattered so long as they were entertained. And they burned every book they found.
Sure, there were some who remembered the days when education was valued and books were respected, but… Wisdom is hard. Literature isn’t always fun. Poetry can move people to tears.
Who wants to work hard or cry over an old book? Why not just sit back and be entertained by endless television shows that don’t require thought?
The protagonist, Guy Montag, is brought to a crisis of faith, as it were, by his seventeen-year-old neighbor, Clarisse. She’s an odd girl who goes out walking at night to look at the stars or stand in the rain or pick dandelions to figure out if she’s in love or not. Her family doesn’t have a wall-sized television. They talk to each other in the evening, and their house is full of laughter. Clarisse is happy, and Guy doesn’t know why. But he wants to keep talking to her, because she makes him want to look up at the stars and taste the rain on his tongue and do all the other things their society says is unlawful. Like reading books.
“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.”
–Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
If good science fiction answers the question, “What will happen if things keep going as they are now?”, then we must ask ourselves that on every page of Fahrenheit 451, because it is as relevant now as it was when it was published in 1953. If anything has changed in the past sixty-four years, it’s that we have given ourselves the means to live lives filled with nothing more than idle distraction. The news is dreadful and it’s hard to call our representatives about the abysmal state of our health care system, but that’s alright. We can binge watch fourteen seasons of Gray’s Anatomy and follow it up with a Sunday afternoon of NFL football where we’ll argue whether or not it’s disrespectful to veterans if the players kneel during the national anthem without asking ourselves how we can work to prevent the average of twenty veteran suicides that happen every day.
Wisdom is hard.
But if we don’t want to wake up one morning to find that we are suddenly living in the nightmare world of Fahrenheit 451, we have to acknowledge that change is hard, and that progress is not comfortable. We must not grow at ease in a world that devalues knowledge and curiosity. We must not become the book burners.
Because despite what Guy Montag believed at the beginning, it is not a pleasure to burn.
“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.”
— Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451