Book Review: “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury, published by Simon and Schuster, 2012 (originally published in 1953)
In the futuristic society depicted in “Fahrenheit 451,” books are illegal and intellectual pursuits are considered dangerous. A fireman like Guy Montag makes a full-time career out of burning books and the houses where they are hidden. “It was a pleasure to burn,” he says, after a productive day at work.
By all accounts, Montag has a good job and a contented life with his drab but loyal wife, Mildred. However, a chance encounter with his neighbor, 17-year-old Clarisse McClellan, touches him in an unexpected way. Clarisse, who spends her evenings wandering in the neighborhood, is spontaneous, precocious, and full of wonder. She asks him, “Do you ever read any of the books you burn?”
Montag laughs at her naiveté because everyone knows reading is outlawed and yet the innocence and audacity of the question strike a chord. It’s the beginning of a profound change in Montag that turns him from law enforcer to a criminal and a fugitive.
The novel’s prescience is impressive. “Fahrenheit 451,” published in 1953, describes “electronic bees,” which we know today as ear buds, and a listening device, which is the equivalent of the audio surveillance “bugs” used by the intelligence community today.
In the novel, TV dominated Mildred’s life by providing entertainment nonstop, while Clarisse refers to the use of television for education. “The televisor is real,” Professor Faber observes. “It tells you what to think and blasts it in…It rushes you in so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest.” The medium, as imagined by Bradbury, is as ubiquitous as the Internet today.
So far, nobody has manufactured the dreaded mechanical hound in the book, which Montag says “has never failed in tracking a suspect.” We do have robots that defuse bombs and drones that search for disaster victims and strike terrorists in far-flung locations. Bradbury wasn’t too far-off.
Literary Science Fiction
I’m not a science fiction fan. I borrowed this book from my 19-year-old daughter. I asked her if she read it as a school requirement. She said no. She’d bought it because her favorite YA author, John Green, recommended it to readers.
Reading Bradbury’s book gave me an entirely different experience from watching the forgettable movie of the same title. The “science fiction” aspect and the political nature of this anti-authoritarian book are secondary for me. Montag’s well-drawn character and his transformation kept me reading. What struck me about this novel was not its dystopian nature or technical savvy, but its unabashed paean to books. I was moved by Montag’s belated discovery of the pleasure of reading and the importance of books. I couldn’t imagine a life devoid of intellectual stimulation.
It helps that Bradbury’s writing dazzles. Describing Montag’s first encounter with Clarisse, he wrote, “The autumn leaves blew over the moonlit pavement in such a way as to make the girl who was moving there seemed fixed to a sliding walk, letting the motion of the leaves and the wind carry her forward.” Later on he added, “Her dress was white and it whispered.”
If you haven't read science fiction before, let “Fahrenheit 451” be your first. It’s a great book that transcends its genre. Thanks to John Green for the recommendation!