Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I read Fahrenheit 451 in two days this weekend.  There aren’t many books that make you see the world differently when you’re done, and for me this was one of them.

The book tells the story of Montag, a fireman, in a near-future American town.  In this near future, books are illegal, the government controls all media, and firemen burn houses containing books on as little evidence as a phone call.  Montag meets Claire, a girl who gets him thinking about why he does what he does.  Then he has to burn the house of a woman who is willing to burn to death herself rather than leave her books.  This sparks a rebellion in Montag against the book-burning system.

As with his other books, the images Bradbury conjures are lasting and disturbing – I won’t be forgetting the Mechanical Hound, the “families” in the walls, and the people who all step out their front doors at the same time because TV tells them to.

But more than just imagery and Bradbury’s always beautiful prose, this book is about what we take for granted — it’s about the power of literature and language; the need for people to think critically; and the need for silence and time to reflect on what we read.  (On this last point, see a recent article in the New York Times about how technology is keeping us from that time to process.)

In the story, the government doesn’t have to try very hard to silence people’s thought – the people did it to themselves. The invention of television causes people to stop reading and talking to each other.  The government then realizes how much more manageable people are when they stop thinking, and makes books illegal.  No one minds enough to protest, aside from a small minority of academics.  Television becomes “family” and people “interact” with it.  People are happy and prosperous, and though there is a war going on, no one knows or cares much about it.

Beatty, the head fireman, explains the philosophy behind book-burning:

“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo.  Burn it.  White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Burn it.  Somone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs?  The cigarette people are weeping?  Burn the book… If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one.  Better yet, give him none.”

This book was published in 1953, and clearly many of the dire predictions of the book have not come true – in fact communication today is about as open as it could possibly be.  We have the Internet, hundreds of private cable channels, regular and satellite radio, and any book we want, thanks to online and big box bookstores.  More importantly, television hasn’t caused people to stop reading.  Some even argue that the Internet enables us to read more.

At the same time, Bradbury’s concern about the television viewer as a passive non-thinker seems VERY relevant today.  There’s no question that we watch television differently from the way we read, that we cease to interact in a meaningful way with each other, and that we soak up messages without really thinking about them.  In Bradbury’s time, popular television was designed to soothe (e.g. Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver).  Today it’s designed to shock.  But I’m not sure it’s any different.  Even when we watch horrifying things on television, we still turn the TV off and go about our day.

Sure, we can watch instructional television if we want to – but is there any real difference between watching a show like “Mythbusters” and watching “Real Housewives of New Jersey”?  Maybe not according to Bradbury.  Beatty explains that the government tries to “cram [people] full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely brilliant with information.  Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.  And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”

In Fahrenheit’s world, communication was controlled by the government; today, there may be harm in having too many choices of media. More and more, we listen to whoever agrees with us, so rather than being exposed to objective sources of information, we have to pick and choose, and we generally choose whoever agrees with us.  So you watch Fox News because you already share their viewpoint, and in turn they just keep reinforcing that viewpoint without offering multiple points of view.  In a 2003 interview on the 50th anniversary of the book, Bradbury expresses the concern about television news deluding viewers, and I definitely agree.

I read Fahrenheit 451 in paper form, which is unusual for me these days, but it wasn’t available on the Kindle.  In fact, Bradbury, who turned 90 this month, has vehemently rejected putting his books on the Kindle or other e-readers.  Two weeks ago he told the LA Times “we have too many machines now.”

However, in the book Bradbury makes very clear that it’s not the format of the book that matters, it’s the thought process. When paper books aren’t available, the characters memorize the words so they can be reproduced later. One of the characters says “books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all.  The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

Columnist Tom Horgen in the Minnesota Star Tribune recently made two complaints about e-readers.  He says: “An e-book is not a book. A digital screen does not replace the feeling, the scent and the joy of turning the pages of a classic novel. That’s why I wouldn’t be caught dead using an e-reader”  While I get that people are attached to the feel of paper books (I personally love the dusty smell of old bookstores), we don’t read for the feel of the page, we read for the words, the thoughts, the meaning.

Horgen goes on to say “If the circumstances of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian future in “Fahrenheit 451” were to happen today, the government wouldn’t even have to burn books. They’d just press a button to delete them. That’s sad.”  It’s true that Amazon has the power to remove books from our Kindles, as they did last year with an unauthorized copy of 1984.  It’s a serious concern if there is only one e-publisher.  But as long as there is competition, there is little difference between publication on an e-reader and regular print publication.

Censorship still exists. There are plenty of communities out there removing Harry Potter, Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye from library bookshelves.  But today’s censorship may lie more in the ability to pay for the books you want to read, since Amazon and other vendors allow us to buy pretty much anything we want, while libraries in schools and low-income neighborhoods are sadly underfunded and underused.

Bradbury’s fears of censorship may not have come to pass — but having read this amazing book I will definitely think more about what – and how – I watch television.

  11 comments for “Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

  1. August 30, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    Wow. This was amazing. I read this book a long time ago, and I really think I was too young and naive to truly appreciate it. After reading your amazing review/article, I will definitely be picking it up again. Your comments were insightful and thought-provoking and as a whole the piece was beautifully written. It was truly a pleasure to read this, and you raise a lot of really good points. That quote about the government having the ability to push a button and delete our books is rather alarming! I was a slow adjuster to the ereader revolution, though it certainly does have it’s merits. I have a Nook now and love it, but there is something about having a hardbound copy in hand. You’re right though – it’s the words that matter. A fact Fahrenheit 451 really reinforces.

  2. August 31, 2010 at 11:58 am

    Thanks for your review! I agree with Casey that this is both insightful and thought-provoking. Bradbury’s dystopia, like Huxley’s in A Brave New World, is frightening because the people essentially censor themselves by voluntarily giving up books and independent thought without a Big Brother forcing them to.

    I love your point that nowadays we have too many media choices that lead to a kind of information overload where you just end up watching/reading/listening to someone we already agree with and then patting ourselves on the back for being so clever to agree with this person.

  3. September 1, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    I tagged you as one of my favorite bloggers in a game of blog tag.

  4. September 2, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    I read this a couple years ago and – forgive me if I get the description wrong – I remember there was mention of people being almost addicted to the little seashells that they put in their ears and tuned out the rest of the world. I think it was connected to the TV watching in the book but I remember being more than a little disturbed as I read it on a crowded train and looked around at countless fellow commuters hooked up to their iPods with earbuds tucked into their ears so that they could tune out the world around them. Bradbury’s always been a favorite of mine and this one is easily one of his best.

    Also, if you don’t object to indie authors, there’s a really good novel called The Book by M. Clifford that’s sort of an updated version of Farenheit. There’s a review of it on my blog if you’re interested. Basically it explores a future where books are banished for the sake of recycling and all publications are done digitally but unbeknown to the public, the government has been altering classic literature in its digital form. It’s a really interesting book if you like the subject matter!

  5. September 10, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    I loved this book! I agree, this book does change the way you look at the world. It was amazing. Great review!

  6. November 11, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    Great review. I read some Bradbury a long time ago and thought this book was one I would read but somehow never got around to it. So now I’ll be sure to look for it next time I’m at the library or bookstore (is it still in print?). I’ll also have to check out the book Lisa mentioned in her comment.


  7. July 24, 2014 at 7:11 am

    Great post and so many good thoughts!
    I read Fahrenheit 451 when I had never heard anything of this book before. At time, I only distantly remembered that Bradbury was even author. The book was quite shocking, I just can’t get over the fact that they burned books…Awful. Absolutely great book though. To think about it, It’s kind of good that Kindle won’t burn so easily and that you can’t burn internet (too easily?).

    I wish people read more in stead of spending countless hours in front of the tv. Like Bradbury himself said (I think) you don’t have to burn books to destroy culture. Just get people to stop reading them.

    I don’t oppose watching tv that much though, I myself watch great amount of tv series but that doesn’t diminish the books I read (or maybe it does actually…). But the problem is not in watching the tv but maybe more in living in the pink couch potato’s bubble.I mean if oyu both read and watch news and all in different languages I think it’s the greatest combination. People just don’t want to to do that.

    • July 25, 2014 at 7:54 am

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I loved this book and how relevant it is today. I agree that watching TV isn’t the problem, there’s plenty of good television shows. But I have to admit I can never understand people who don’t like to read.

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