Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the source of all discord and unhappiness: the printed book.
Montag never questions the destruction or his own bland life, until he is shown a past where people didn’t live in fear and a present where one sees the world through ideas.
Montag starts hiding books in his home. Soon they’ll make him run for his life.
This week’s Book Snap is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, a classic dystopian text that depicts a world where books are forbidden and fun and peace of mind are the main objects of life. First published in 1953, there is a lot in this book that reminds us of the world we live in now: the devaluing of books, knowledge, history and literature, in favour of an endless pursuit of fun and entertainment, shallow relationships, and an inability to appreciate the deeper meaning of life. The end result, of course, is cold and empty lives.
Awarded the Retro Hugo Prize for 1953 and the Pulitzer Prize Special Citation in 2007, Fahrenheit 451 has succeeded in becoming a far more influential book than Bradbury ever expected. This 50th Anniversary edition includes an introduction by Bradbury, in which he states, “The book seems to have a life that goes on recreating itself.”
As clearly depicted by the title and cover, fire has a prominent place in the text. The main character, Guy Montag, is a fireman. While we revere firemen for their bravery as they endeavour to protect life and property from the ravages of fire, Bradbury’s firemen burn things. Books especially. And it is a job they particularly enjoy as depicted by the opening sentence: “It was a pleasure to burn.” The official slogan of the firemen goes like this:
Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, Turn 'em to ashes, Then burn the ashes.
In this world it is a crime to own books and if you are betrayed, the firemen will come and burn everything – your books, your possessions, your house. But one evening, a callout forces Montag to question everything he thought he knew. After pumping the room with kerosene, Montag observes the owner of the house, a woman, kneeling “among the books, touching the drenched leather and cardboard, reading the gilt titles with her fingers” while his boss lays down the law.
“You know the law, Where’s your common sense? None of these books agree with each other. You’ve been locked up here for years with a regular damned Tower of Babel. Snap out of it! The people in those books never lived.”
The woman chooses to die with her books, causing Montag to ask: “There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house. You don’t stay for nothing.”
Montag is influenced by two other main characters, a young girl named Clarisse and a reclusive professor, Faber. Clarisse opens Montag’s eyes to a different kind of life, where people actually care about each other, talking and laughing in a “relaxed and hearty and not forced in any way,” and go for hikes “around in the forests and watch the birds.” As you can probably tell, Clarisse is an outsider, a dangerous, anti-social disturber of the peace. When she suddenly disappears, Montag tracks down Faber, who reveals to him the truth about books.
“It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books…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…They show the pores in the face of life.”
You might wonder what happened for the outlawing and burning of books to become accepted practice. Surely there would have been an outcry when books were banned? Surely people would have been horrified by the wanton destruction of books? Not when people had stopped reading of their own accord because they were having so much fun. Not when the protestors were just a small bunch of marginalised, old-fashioned professors and booklovers. As Bradbury notes in the Afterword, “you don’t have to burn books, do you, if the world starts to fill up with non-readers, non-learners, non-knowers?”
Eventually Montag is forced to go on the run and meets up with a group of renegades – professors, intellectuals, and worst of all, book readers. From them we can learn two things.
First, of all, a warning.
“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.”
And secondly, some advice.
“I hate a Roman named Status Quo!…Stuff your eyes with wonder…live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security…”
May we always be readers of books, learners of new things, and receptacles for knowledge.