Book review CLASSIC: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I first read this book years ago as a kid but recently re-read it because one of my favourite podcasts, The Kick-Ass Mystic Ninjas, were doing an episode on it. I didn’t really think much of it back in the day, but I have to admit it holds up much better when you read it as an adult.

The story follows Guy Montag, who works as a fireman in a dystopian near-future America. A fireman, that is, who doesn’t put out fires but sets fire to things – specifically books. The title derives from the temperature at which books – allegedly – combust: 451 degrees Fahrenheit or about 233 degrees Celsius (in fact, at the time it was thought to be 450 degrees Celsius, but apparently 451 Fahrenheit sounded cooler).

In this future, all books except technical manuals have been made illegal and Montag, along with his fellow firemen, are responsible for seeking out people who hide books, confiscate them – and burn them. Montag has just been following orders without questioning them at all, but one day he meets a young girl from the neighbourhood, who makes him think about his life. Suddenly he realizes that he is stuck in a job that makes no sense, prosecuting essentially innocent people, and that his wife – like the rest of society – has basically been turned into a mindless catatonic zombie by government-controlled mass media.

The book came out in 1953, and the story is, first and foremost, a very thinly veiled critique of the modern TV-age consumer society where citizens only live to fulfil their immediate desires – that is to say, what these infernal mass media tell them are their immediate desires. Bradbury is obviously not a big fan of television in general and the way it allows the ‘authorities’ to decide what we recieve, thus alienating people and depriving them of their free will. In fact, he has stated himself that the main theme of the book is just that: the effetcs of censorship and mass media on literature.

Television was of course still a relatively new medium at the time, and Bradbury’s concerns may seem a bit exaggerated today; after all, we’ve had TV for over 60 years now, the Internet for about 15 years – and people still read books, including Bradbury’s own. There are also elements in the book that seem unrealistic when you think about it: for instance, the book burning has been going on for at least a few generations, and yet there are still enough books left to keep a small army of firemen occupied full-time.

Nevertheless, he touched upon some central themes that were relevant then and are still just as relevant now, and he predicted inventions like plasma screens (the television set Montag’s wife is watching covers three entire walls in their living room) as well as phenomena like reality TV. Those are the hallmarks of great science fiction: it predicts future trends and technological inventions, and it affects the way people think. Bradbury’s best stories – like Fahrenheit 451 – do that, and that is exactly what makes him one of the all-time greats, not just of his genre but of literature in general.

A few pieces of trivia should be mentioned as a closing note. 1) The novella (it’s only about 150 pages) was originally published together with two unrelated short stories, “The Playground” and “And the Rock Cried Out”. 2) In the 1954, the story was serialized – in Playboy, of all places! 3) Bradbury discovered many years after publication that the editor had – ironically – censored certain passages from the book, and demanded that it be reissued in the form he had intended. 4) In 1966, the story was adapted into a movie by Francois Truffaut, starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie. Two words: Don’t bother.

Fahrenheit 451 (1953/1993) by Ray Bradbury. 176 pp. paperback. Listed for € 7.99 on play.com

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