Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, first published in 1953, has sat on my shelf for a couple years now, unread. Most likely this is because I have not read much in the genre of science fiction and I had a preconceived notion that I would not enjoy it. I was wrong. Right away I was surprised by the language of the novel. Bradbury’s prose was insightful, striking, lovely…exquisite really. Secondly, I was surprised by what I found to be the true premise of the novel. Yes, this is a tale that deals with the censorship of books; however, I feel that Bradbury is more specifically asking us to consider the importance of critical thinking in any society.
Guy Montag lives in a fast paced (cars routinely travel at up words of 100mph with the possibility of a ticket for traveling under the minimum of 55mph), homogenized future world in which books no longer belong because they do not promote happiness. Books produce thought and thought is supposed to be the root of all unhappiness. Accordingly, at some point society simply stopped reading, reading books became illegal, and burning of books began. Montag is a fireman, but firemen no longer put out fires (all houses have been fire-proofed). Instead, firemen are in charge of burning books and the houses that contain them. On the way to one fire, the fire chief says: “Here we go to keep the world happy, Montag!” In another conversation Chief Beatty states: “You ask why to a lot of things and you wind up very unhappy indeed.” When exposed to an impromptu, illegal poetry reading by Montag, his neighbor Mrs. Phelps becomes very distressed and Mrs. Bowles exclaims: “You see? I knew it … I knew it would happen! I’ve always said poetry and tears, poetry and suicide and crying and awful feelings, poetry and sickness … now I’ve had it proven to me.” Could this really be true? Is thought really the enemy of the happiness we all pursue? Do books really betray us as Beatty points out: “What traitors books can be! You think they’re backing you up, and they turn on you.”
Or is Montag accurate when he thinks: “There must be something in books … to make a woman stay in a burning house … you don’t stay for nothing.” Of course, you can guess on which side of the argument Bradbury and I lie. We hear Montag wonder: “How do you get so empty … who takes it out of you?” Without independent thought, the world becomes a society left numb and empty from their Seashell ear buds (IPods?), their interactive living room walls (Wii, the Internet, reality TV?) who no longer interact in person (e-mail, texting, Facebook?). Hmm, how was it that Bradbury was able to envision 2010 so clearly from back in the early 1950s? Of course, I enjoy the benefits of our current technology and indulge in the therapeutic benefits of entertainment for entertainment’s sake, but critical thinking (and books) still exists to provide a necessary balance…for now…