by Ray Bradbury
“We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon.” — Captain Beatty
Ray Bradbury would have been 92 years old this past Wednesday (August 22, 2012). He was a prolific writer of science fiction and horror stories, novellas and novels and is best known for Fahrenheit 451, first published in 1953 by Ballantine books.
This is the story of Guy Montag, a fireman in a future America. In this society a fireman's job is not protection from fire, but to burn books and the homes which contain them. The goal of this is to remove the influence of literature. Guy begins to doubt his purpose in life when he meets a young neighbor girl named Clarisse. Clarisse is a romantic and encourages Guy to appreciate and engage his surroundings and life in general:
“You’re not like the others. I’ve seen a few; I know. When I talk, you look at me. When I said something about the moon, you looked at the moon, last night. The others would never do that.”
Clarisse and her family disappear under suspicious circumstances and Guy ponders the meaning of his discussions with Clarisse. He becomes frustrated with his wife Mildred who sits all day enveloped in a television "room" where her stories are displayed on the walls. Mildred talks of the actors as if they were family and her whole life becomes interchangeable with the plots of the television dramas.
Guy becomes particularly distraught when, during the process of burning a book-filled home, the old woman who owns the home perishes in the fire. He begins a process of pilfering books and keeping them in his home (well aware of the danger of such action) and befriends an old theologian. In the final chapters of the book Guy is revealed as a book owner and he is on the run from the authorities after a particularly violent confrontation at his burning home. In hiding out in the country, Guy encounters other intellectuals on the lam and witnesses the beginning of an Armageddon-like war.
There have been many interpretations of this brief but powerful novel. Many center around the idea of censorship and suppression of knowledge by the state. Bradbury himself stated that the novel was more about the dehumanizing effect of television on humans - taking over their lives and thoughts at the expense of self-knowledge, free thinking and individuality. How prescient is this novel, written nearly sixty years ago? Today we do have room-sized televisions, 3-D screens and surround sound, much like the "television rooms" Bradbury describes in Fahrenheit 451. We also have the phenomenon of "reality TV" where the characters in these shows become like family for some. We live in an age where the majority of adults never read a book and what passes for literature is basically trash (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone?).
This novel is well worth reading, not only for the critical ideas the author explores, but also for the quality of the writing, so absent from today's "literature."