Book: Fahrenheit 451
Author: Ray Bradbury
Reviewed by: Danielle
Rating: 4/5 stars
Every few weeks or so I like to visit a book store. Sometimes I have a goal, a specific book in mind (usually several), and other times I simply want to browse and enjoy myself. The smell is usually the first thing I notice – it’s one of my favorites. There’s nothing like a room full of books, their aroma so distinct and calming. Eventually I scan the usual sections, rejoicing yet at the same time despairing over how many books I have yet to read, wishing I could buy all of them but knowing I already have a whole box at home to finish. There is nothing quite like buying a new book. Even if you cannot read it for another few weeks or even months, there is a sweet sensation about having it in your hands, knowing it’s yours to devour whenever you wish. Reading a story for the first time, turning it page by page unconscious of what’s going to happen next, even the mere physicality of it in your hands, is an intoxicating experience. There is so much variety, so many emotions books pull out of you. My trips to the book store mean discovering something new; finding words that are pieced together in a way my mind has not yet comprehended. Words that will move me and grow inside of me; I will learn and be a better person for having read them.
This partly answers that time-honored question: What is it about books that make them so important and so powerful? Faber, the old English professor in Fahrenheit 451, tells us that “the magic” rests “in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.” They lead us to truths about ourselves, about worlds we have visited or may never visit; they offer answers to our questions, and new questions to answers we thought we already knew. They argue with us and with each other, sometimes win and sometimes lose; they store themselves inside of us until our soul is changed and reshaped. Every time we read a book we come away as different people. It is an unexplainable phenomenon but as real as the books themselves.
Ray Bradbury’s novel describes a dystopian society that has mostly forgotten to ask this question or any question at all. There are no libraries to visit here. The main character, Guy Montag, begins the book as a fireman, but not the kind we have today. He ignites and burns rather than extinguishes and cleanses. His job is to burn any house that is carrying books, to put the pages of Faulkner, Whitman, and Arnold into flames. The title, Fahrenheit 451, alludes to the temperature at which paper incinerates. There is no need for the printed word when other media entertainment such as the television and radio offer enough stimulation. The people, of course, are thoughtless and dehumanized shadows, obsessed with fun and danger and fast cars and loud television programs that allow little time for brain activity. Here, books are considered not only unessential but dangerous as well. Reading promotes intelligence and free thinking. This is a culture that values entertainment that is easy and deadens the mind, and Bradbury paints this picture with startling and scary clarity.
But this isn’t your usual sort of dystopian literature. The government isn’t so much repressive as the people are willfully ignorant; over the years they have neglected the active use of their mind in favor of mindless entertainment, and those in power have more supported their descent rather than enforce it. Guy Montag believes he is a happy fireman at the start of the novel. He never questions his destructive actions and even joys watching the books and the houses turn to ash. But as he embarks on a spiritual and moral journey that causes him to rethink his entire life, Montag starts hiding books of his own. In them, he believes, contains a knowledge and power that has been kept from him. Only the printed word can awaken him and help him to remember, to think, and to feel. Life does not have to be mindless and hollow. Montag transforms from a man who happily burns books into someone who is willing to risk his life, his home, and his marriage to protect works of authors long since dead or forgotten. Inside the covers is knowledge that is brighter than any flame and ideas that are worth exploring. I liked the metaphor towards the end of the book that described Montag’s body as the binding around the book. Even if all the books in all the world are burnt, safe inside of him are their words that he has cherished and remembered and can pass on to others.
Some of the most poignant moments of the novel center around the supporting characters. There’s Clarisse, an unusual, intuitive girl who, Montag points out, is the first friend he has had in years. She is strangely removed from the hedonistic society of the novel, characterized as a thinker and a watcher and a listener. Montag asks why it feels as if he has known her for years, and she replies, “Because I like you, and I don’t want anything from you”. They converse or think in companionable silence, together. There is also the moment in the novel when Mrs. Phelps, a flippant woman who rarely thinks and makes light of her marriage and children, is brought to tears by Montag’s rendition of Dover Beach. She doesn’t know why she is crying, but we as readers do; we have all experienced it before. The beautiful, haunting cadence of art.
Despite it’s bleak outlook, this is a book I couldn’t help but sink into. The prose is beautiful and hypnotic, with a heavy use of repetition and imagery and metaphor. Much like a flame, it kindles and burns inside you as you read, and you’re ignited into a whole new appreciation for literature. Although some of his ideas are vague or oversimplified – such as war and nature’s necessity for man – the message I came away with, reminding me of why I love books so much and how much they have become a part of me, rings true. The simple act of walking in a book store suddenly has much more blessed meaning.