Sunday, 18 May 2008
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
It has been many years since I last read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I picked it for the Banned Books Challenge so I could re-read it again. I am so glad I did. In a mere 179 pages - mere considering the enormous tomes that come out now in trilogies and 7 book series - Ray Bradbury reminded me of what science fiction is at its heart. We look into the future, and we are shown a possibility, a world that could be.
Fahrenheit 451 looks into a future for our world, and shows us a terrible world that is even more creepy because we are on our way to becoming that world. If we burn one book, if we allow the freedom to ban books, to ban thinking and remembering, which is what books are, then what is the result? Fahrenheit 451 shows us that result. This book is a chilling look at a future that we are on our way to having, and that is the worst thing about it. How can we not have learned anything in the last 60 years since this book was first published? How did Bradbury imagine we would have reality tv, barely-there earphones that keep us plugged in to our own music, or the radio, so all the time we are surrounded by sound? And, of course, the book banning. Whereas I can't figure out why Inkheart would be banned, I know why this book would be considered, which is ironic.
So what is there in Fahrenheit 451 to be afraid of? On top of everything listed above, there is the sound of the 'war' in the background of this novel. Periodically the news will mention briefly that another war has been launched, and every night or morning, it's a daily thing - Guy Montag (the hero) and the rest of the city shudders under the sound of the jets flying over head. Or they would shudder, if they weren't numbed by tv and the audio shells. It's always in the background, and no countries are named, and it's over by nightfall. It's so constant that no one talks about it, no one wonders. And I began to think of our own current day, with our current war-that-is-not-war in Iraq. Unlike the US, we have never declared war openly on Iraq. We simply went to war to fight the insurgents, one day. There was never any debate in our House of Commons, and we are over there not under the arm of the UN, nor really as colleagues of the US, even though we are supporting the US war on terrorism. It is very strange, and I can't quite figure out how we are supposed to know we have won when 'the enemy' is not something you can crush - we all know that idealogy can't be wiped out even if you destroy its army. And Fahrenheit 451 is about the numbness that people in general feel when they stop thinking, when they accept what they are told without question. Have you noticed how the news about the war in Iraq is changing? Here in Canada, we no longer here about the bombing errors, we only hear about the occasional 'successful' raid, and about every casualty our army suffers. We don't have to put up with George Bush's rhetoric, thank heavens, because he is terrifying and has made this war numbing to hear about. For the rest of us back here it is numbing, not for the men and women of so many countries (some under the UN banner) who are out there in Iraq, fighting, and in Afghanistan (where we are based), 'restoring peace' I think is what we are officially doing. For them, the war is real. And for their sakes as well as ours, we owe it to remember, and to recognize that our governments don't want us thinking very hard about this war. Fahrenheit 451 is about that numbing, so that no one knows and no one questions anything anymore. And while I hear promises that one day we will all be out of Iraq, I don't hear any active discussion, debate, no active dissent any more. No one seems to have an opinion, or if they do, it is quickly hushed up. And that is the future that Bradbury envisioned, the numbing of the freedom to think, which becomes the numbing of the ability to act. So this book is as relevant as it was when it was first published 60 years ago.
Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which books begin to burn. Guy Montag is the hero, the fireman who wears 451 on his hat, signifying he is a fireman who sets books and houses on fire. Among the many horrors of this book is the fact history is being rewritten - according to the fireman's rule book, Benjamin Franklin in 1790 was the first fireman! To burn 'English-influenced books in the colonies'. Books can rewrite history, and the winners write that history. So they can't be all true. So what is so frightening about them? If one book can say one thing,and another the opposite? If history is rewritten, so what came before is changed again? Why is this important? It's because books carry the history of what people did before.
Or, as Granger, one of the characters we meet near the end of the book says:
" But even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn't use what we got out of them. We went right on insulting the dead. We went right on spitting in the graves of all the poor ones who died before us. We're going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we're doing, you can say, We're remembering. That's where we'll win out in the long run. And someday we'll remember so much that we'll build the biggest goddamn steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in and cover it up."
In case you think this book is dark and terrifying - which it is, in places - there is also love and hope and friends. Guy discovers he is not alone, in hiding books, in questioning what they are living, their life. He can't remember simple things like where he met his wife Mildred. It is a terrifying world where no one connects except those who ask questions, but then they become dangerous because they don't accept the status quo. Where teenagers race to see who survives the night, because they don't care, and everyone accepts this fact. Where Mildred his wife tries to kill herself, and then is given a memory-wipe pill after she is saved, so the next day she has no idea what her husband is talking about. That underlying despair that everyone tries to cover up with noise. One of the most memorable characters is Clarisse McClellan, who he meets at the beginning of the novel. She is a teenager, and acts as his muse:
"I sometimes think drivers don't know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly," she said. "If you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! he'd say, that's grass! A pink blur? That's a rose garden. White blurs are houses. Brown blurs are cows. My uncle drove slowly on the highway once. He drove forty miles an hour and they jailed him for two days. Isn't that funny, and sad, too?"
"You think too many things," said Montag, uneasily.
"I rarely watch the 'parlor walls' or go to races or Fun Parks. So I've lots of time for crazy thoughts, I guess. Have you seen the two hundred-foot-long billboards in the country beyond town? Did you know once that billboards were only twenty feet long? But cars started rushing by so quickly they had to stretch the advertising out so it would last."
"I didn't know that!" Montag laughed abruptly.
"Bet I know something else you don't. There's dew on the grass in the morning."
He lives in a world in which television has become interactive walls in your house, where you can have three - ultimately 4 - walls in the 'tv parlor' which are set with your name, so when the announcer of the game shows or tv reality shows announce your name - because you've paid for the subscription price, of course - you feel like part of the 'family'. Where you wear audio SeaShells every other moment, or, when on public transit, ads are blasted at you. Mildred wants the 4th wall so she can lose herself entirely in the tv family. Of course, Montag has realized that the tv isn't real, and the family isn't real. But his wife doesn't want to see it. So when Clarisse starts talking to him, all the simmering unconscious questions he has suddenly surface.
Fahrenheit 451 is about one man's awakening, and how he escapes. It is chilling, yes, especially the ending - and I don't want to give it away, so I can't say more, but it is so amazing and powerful it is breathtaking, it is stunning, and also full of hope. Most of all, against all the horrors of a world gone mad with numbness, Bradbury shows the way out: Pay attention. Ask why. Read. Remember. If the book begins with acts of destruction, it ends with what we should be doing:
"Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there. It doesn't matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away."
This is a powerful novel. I hope you get to read it one day, Gentle Reader, if you have not read it yet. This is one of those necessary books to read, I think.
Other people's posts - and please, if you have reviewed this or any book I have posted about, send me your link and I will add it (thanks!):
Chris at Book-A-Rama
Joanna (Lost in A Good Story)
Teddy (So Many Books)