Bad news: 451 degrees F is not, in fact, the temperature at which paper bursts into flame. (It’s actually between 440 and 470 degrees F depending on the type of paper).
Good news: Ray Bradbury’s novel about censorship, mass media, and induced apathy in the modern world is as accessible and spooky as it was the day he finished writing it in 1953.
Fahrenheit 451 is the story of Guy Montag, a fireman in the most literal sense: he sets books on fire. Bradbury said in interviews that he wrote the book to address the popularity of the idea of book burning during the McCarthy years in the U.S. As time wore on, he came to describe the book in more general terms. The book has pulled down a number of awards starting with the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and the Commonwealth Club of California Club Gold Medal in 1954. Francois Truffaut wrote and directed an excellent film adaptation in 1966, and the BBC produced a radio adaptation in 1982.
And of course, it’s been banned, censored, and redacted by schools and libraries since its publication. (The irony of banning a book about burning books is apparently lost in some circles.)
Anyway, Guy Montag burns books. In this world, firemen seek out and seize stashes of books in private homes and ignite them. Books are considered confusing things, filled with all sorts of ideas that make people uncomfortable (“painful, awful, hurting words” as his wife Millie describes them). In that sense, the firemen perform a public service: they keep the masses happy and allow them to focus on the permissible outlets: television (parlor walls), visual mass media, and sports events.
Frankly, Montag is okay with his life until he meets Clarisse, a new neighbor, a high school girl who is far more likely to ask “Why?” than “How?” While she vexes her teachers and fellow students, Montag finds her refreshing and fascinating–until she disappears. Montag’s wife, Millie, thinks the girl died in an auto accident but doesn’t really know or care.
Missing Clarisse is bad enough, but Montag truly questions his life when he takes a call to burn the stash of an elderly woman with a huge hidden library. The house is torched and the woman elects to burn to death with it rather than give up her library. Superficially, Montag understands that the woman sealed her own fate, but his guts tell him a different story.
Montag starts stressing out. Beatty, his fire chief, takes him aside to explain that the books aren’t really illegal per se. A fireman is even allowed to keep one and read it as long as he burns it within 24 hours. It’s the books’ effects on the public that forces the state to employ firemen. After he leaves, Montag reveals to his wife that he does have a stash of books, and he has no intention of burning them.
Montag loses his desire to play by the rules and obsesses about the books. He contacts an old English professor in a desperate attempt to figure out how reading works (and why it’s forbidden), only for him to avoid Guy like the plague. Guy then crashes his wife’s “parlor wall party,” reads the poem Dover Beach, and makes one guest cry. Millie flips out, Guy burns the book to mollify the guest, everyone storms out, and his wife turns Montag over to the authorities.
Millie leaves him on the spot while firemen burn his house. After a grand chase, Montag escapes the city to find a group of exiles who live by the river. Each of them has memorized one book in the hopes that the future will be more receptive to the idea of reading and preserving thoughts through the written word. War breaks out, the city is destroyed, and when the flames die down, Montag and his new friends head in to rebuild.
Bradbury’s work is generally allegorical, but Fahrenheit 451 is a thematic wonderland. Besides the obvious comparisons to real-life book burning which are perpetrated in the name of racial, political, or cultural purity, Bradbury equipped many of his characters with “Seashell ear-thimbles,” tiny earpieces through which individuals received streams of personalized media entertainment. On the surface, it’s just a radio, but just beneath that is the desire to surround oneself with a cocoon of sound to keep the world at bay. In that respect, one can’t exactly look at a world where tens of millions of personalized iPhones, Androids, iPads, tablets of every size and price range, float around keeping their users’ attention focused on their glowing screens at the expense of their neighbors and not be a little concerned.
Beyond that the book itself has been the victim of corporate meddling in the name of education standards. Starting in 1967 the book was subject to the expurgation of all words “hell,” “damn,” and the word “abortion” by its publisher, Ballantine Books, to create a high-school friendly version. Worse, by 1973 the cleaned up edition was the only version on the market. When Bradbury learned of this in 1979 he insisted that the original text be reinstated, and in 1980 it was.
One bit that appears frequently in the text that I sped over in this review is the mechanical “hound” that follows Montag, literally sniffing out trouble. It’s basically a robot that’s designed to assist the firemen in their daily lives, including sniffing out book stashes. Besides emerging as a stand-in for continual state surveillance, it’s one of these drones that chases Montag all over the city as a last ditch attempt by the government to silence him. For all that, the hound fails. It’s his wife, Millie, that rats him out the the government, showing that people are still the more dangerous enemy.
Another bit that recurs in the text: there are very few scenes where the subject of war isn’t in evidence. Bombers constantly fly overhead on their ways to foreign targets, Millie’s friend’s husband has been called up (she figures he’ll be back in a week because it’ll be over quickly), and Montag’s home town gets annihilated at the end of the book. The fact that war even exist in this world gives the lie to the danger that books and reading supposedly represent. If everyone must be kept happy and quiescent, why even have wars? Bradbury’s characters are not even sophisticated enough to ask that type of question. Even Beatty is, at heart, a just a functionary. And while Montag and the exiles have the best intentions, we have no clue if they have the skills to rebuild anything, even as they’re willing to try.