A book is a loaded gun in the house next door.
Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?
Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451
Warning: This post may contain politically incorrect language and expletives. They exist for the purpose of example and edification; they are not intended to disparage or defame any particular person, race, creed, color, or religion. If you feel you may be offended by such language, stop reading now. You have been warned.
From the Back Cover
Guy Montag was a fireman whose job it was to start fires.
The system was simple. Everyone understood it. Books were for burning…along with the houses in which they were hidden.
Guy Montag enjoyed his job. He had been a fireman for ten years, and he had never questioned the pleasure of the midnight runs nor the joy of watching pages consumed by flames…Never questioned anything until he met a seventeen-year old girl who told him of a past when people were not afraid.
Then he met a professor who told him of a future in which people could think…and Guy Montag suddenly realized what he had to do!
~ 1991 Del Ray Edition
Why the Book was Banned
1. Profanity, especially for the use of the words “hell” and “damn”
2. Burning of the Christian Bible
3. Perceived opposition to Government (c.f. 1940s and 50s McCarthyism)
In the future, any home containing books must be immediately destroyed by firemen. Guy Montag is one such fireman.
Several events alter his worldview. First, he meets Clarisse McClellan, a teenage girl who opens his eyes to the world around him. Second, his wife Mildred ODs on sleeping pills, further reinforcing Clarisse’s declarations.
Montag reevaluates his life, going so far as to save a book from destruction. Clarisse vanishes, most likely killed by a motorist. Suspicious of Montag’s behavior, Beatty (his boss) lectures him on the origins of firefighting. The lecture bolsters Montag’s “rebellious” nature, and he goes beyond saving books and starts reading them.
One day, Montag meets an old English professor, Faber. Reluctantly, Faber agrees to help Montag fight the firemen. Headstrong, Montag reads poetry aloud to his wife and her friends. That night, Beatty forces Montag to torch his own house.
Running from the law, Montag hides with Faber, who helps him flee the city. On the outskirts of town, Montag meets the Book People: intellectual hobos led by a man named Granger. As the Book People memorize literature to keep it from extinction, Montag volunteers to memorize parts of the Bible.
As they are talking, war strikes home and the city destroyed. The novel ends with the Book People discussing how best to rebuild society.
I knew going into this project that Fahrenheit 451 would top my list. No other book in all of literature has affected me in quite the same way. The book challenged me to think critically, to memorize passages I found important, to know my past, and to not accept blindly every “fact” that I was given. (Can you tell I like the book?) Therefore, I find it quite distressing that people like this consider it trash. That said, let’s begin.
Fahrenheit 451 isn’t about censorship. Bradbury intended Fahrenheit to highlight television’s negative impact on literature. According to Captain Beatty, literature dies a slow, agonizing death:
Step One: Make things simpler. Photography, radio, and television reduce the need to reading comprehension. A picture is worth a thousand words; a 4-hour speech becomes a 30-second sound bite. What books remain are further reduced in condensations, tabloids, and digests. Cut out the boring bits and get to the ending already! Classics are adapted to radio, book columns, and dictionary/encyclopedia entries.
Step Two: Reduce the need for critical thinking. Shorten school; relax discipline; drop subjects like philosophy, history, and languages; ignore English and spelling.
Step Three: Change society’s focus. Everyone needs a job, so ignore everything you “don’t need.” After work, find pleasure in sports, cartoons, and travel.
Step Four: Tolerance. Efforts to avoid offending anyone result in bland books (and entropy of critical thinking).
Note the absence of censorship from this litany. The anti-censorship “theme” appears once:
Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he’s on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust. Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriums. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.
p. 59-60, 1991 Del Ray edition
The misconception persists thanks to the adage “If you tell a lie often enough, it becomes truth.” Over the past 50 years hundreds of critics, essayists, and reviewers promulgated the anti-censorship theory. Even Bradbury’s biographer got it wrong. In reality, Bradbury warns us of a technology-dependent society. Taken to extremes, technology negatively influences everything it touches.
Technology kills diversity. Now, I don’t mean that technology somehow magically transforms everyone into the same race. In its attempt at diversity, technology cannot afford to offend anyone; in so doing, it kills a diversity of ideas. Society benefits from healthy dialogue and debate. These avenues allow us to progress, to move beyond the mistakes of the past, and to leave our world a better place than we found it. Ignoring “unpopular” issues or ideas solves nothing; outright suppression of opposing viewpoints breeds radicalism.
In education, technology limits the free exchange of ideas. “Impossible!” you say. “The internet provides access to more information than at any other time in human history.” Correct. But what happens when (not if) a government decides to limit access to that information? The internet transforms into an echo chamber for government-approved philosophies, resulting in citizens unable to think critically about their world.
Technology also has the power to help or harm the environment. Bradbury envisioned a future where people ignore the landscape; drivers on the superhighways can’t see it and couch potatoes can’t be bothered. It is notable that Montag’s moment of awakening occurs in the rain.
Consider, too, the implications on mental health. Cyber-bullying plagues countless teenagers. Unfiltered access to the internet warps ones perspective on self and society. In a society incapable of building real, lasting relationships, interpersonal skills break down. In Bradbury’s dystopia, teenagers succumb to violence and suicide on a regular basis and no-one bothers to ask why. Thankfully, our society is not that far gone (yet).
Speaking of violence, technology changes our morality. Consider how many studies link technology – especially video games – to violence. There’s a reason why the government uses simulation to prepare soldiers: desensitization. In Bradbury’s world, people ignore the reality of war and treat it like a game or a piece of celebrity gossip.
Bradbury’s overarching theme is inaction. The dystopia he foresees is not the result of cataclysm or military coup; it results from people not caring. They do not care to know, to learn, to grow. They care only for the immediate, for instant gratification, for the next reality show or technological “wonder.” The people voluntarily gave up their rights and chose to blindly follow their authority. Therefore, Bradbury does not warn us of a world where books are censored; he warns us of a world where they are not important. And that, dear reader, is a future most horrifying indeed.
It was a pleasure to burn.