You know me. I read whatever's sitting around, just because it's sitting around and because I like to procrastinate. And so I found myself, when I should have been doing something else, standing in my front hall all afternoon reading Fahrenheit 451, which came in a box of stuff from a friend. I'd never read it before, but I knew it by reputation as THE last word on censorship and haters who burn books. Surely a book acclaimed by so many voices must have something to say to me, as I stand reading it in the hall.
"It's fine work. Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn 'em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That's our official slogan." So says Guy Montag, fireman, whose job is to start fires rather than put them out, fires that consume books. Books are verboten: society has not the patience to read and books might give offense to minorities or make people feel stupid. Burn 'em! There's plenty to entertain the masses -- in fact, the segment of society the reader glimpses seems to do nothing but be entertained. But a spark of rebellion is ignited in Montag's breast by the precocious Clarisse, who thinks. Suddenly Montag is intrigued by the books he's spent a decade burning, and then he connects up with Prof. Faber, a decrepit ex-academic (for the liberal arts have been drummed out of the universities along with the books) and then stuff goes up in flames.
Bradbury is a stylist, I'll give him that. Style upon style upon maddening style. Nothing happens but he can not spin it into a gossamer web of abstraction and introspection. Books burn, people attempt and commit suicide, men run for their lives, and cities are bombed to ashes, but we are remote from it, held at an arm's length by such an inundation of words that one can hardly wonder at his fictional shuttering of liberal arts colleges if this is how Bradbury thinks the intelligentsia write.
And such intelligentsia! So far above the mundanes in understanding! "Pity, Montag, pity," Professor Faber tells our hero. "Don't haggle and nag them; you were so recently of them." The condescension of the poor impotent elites drips through the pages and and scorches our fingers. Sweet ethereal seventeen-year-old-and-crazy Clarisse, who sees more than you, or perhaps is your proxy. Dear Professor Faber, who reminisces with a sigh about "the year I came to class at the start of the new semester and found only one student to sign up for Drama from Aeschylus to O'Neill", as if it wasn't that the one thing you can count on, apocalyptic future or not, is that actors will always be with us; who can play the stock market and invent listening devices in his bedroom but who hasn't the sense to market his invention to an apparently media-hungry populace to finance his own revolution. Oh you sinister Fire Chief Beatty, trying so hard to be menacing with your carefully-memorized quotes, but unable to rise above the level of a low-rent O'Brien from that other famous dystopian novel published the year before Fahrenheit 451. The countryside-full of towerless academics who have photographic memories and the ability to obtain or manufacture pheromone-altering philters, whose damn silly wilderness lectures give an idea of what damn silly places their classrooms must have been.
And such a future! Under Communism, the Poles used to joke, "The future is certain; the past is always changing." Bradbury's future reads like the past, but an altered, uncertain past, with the futuristic quaintness of the fire department's Mechanical Hound, and malignant goverment agencies which resemble no oppressive regime ever. What a visionary vision of the masses as sheeple, so confused by the scary concept of a legion of books contradicting one another because, you know, contradiction is an unfamiliar concept because people have never contradicted each other or themselves. Bradbury, whose fiery imagination apparently couldn't encompass the Kindle, does impress with such prophetic touches as full-wall televisions, interactive entertainment, and (perhaps most prescient) the ever-present earbuds piping constant noise to numb the listener. But these can't drown out the essential arrogance of the conceit that the world must be consumed by fire in order for They Who Carry Knowledge to rise up and resume their rightful places as intellectual saviors of the stupid masses who quiver with indignation at the slightest touch of complexity.
So, yeah. I found myself moved to irritation, not wonder, by this precious fable. And I wondered: whence the book's enduring reputation? Is it that Bradbury drops the names of all the right authors? Does he display just the right mixture of pity and contempt for the great unwashed? Is it that since everyone likes the frisson of feeling that his lifestyle is under attack, librarians everywhere swooned at the great persecution to come and so recommended Fahrenheit 451 beyond its merits? Am I simply a crank who doesn't know great literature when it wallops me over the head with its importance?
All these are burning questions. Let's read a snippet from the interview with Bradbury at the back of my edition of Fahrenheit 451, and see how he suggests that I, or other apathetic souls, might come to "appreciate the power of the word in a culture that is increasingly dominated by the visual":
"Hand them a book, that's all. Science fiction, fantasy -- my books have changed a lot of lives. My books are full of images and metaphors, but they're connected to intellectual concepts. Give one of my books to a twelve-year-old boy who doesn't like to read, and that boy will fall in love and start to read."
There you have it. Bradbury's solution to literary poverty is to read more Bradbury. Unfortunately, I'm too burned out from barbecuing sacred cows to deal with more of their award-winning output.
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