A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows what might be the target of the well-read man?
Guy Montag, protagonist of Fahrenheit 451, is a fireman, though his purpose is not as one might expect. Guy lives in the United States of the future where books are illegal. People live in fire-proof homes; there is no need to put out fires. Instead, the firemen’s purpose is to start a fire. (451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns.) They receive calls to the firehouse, reports of people possessing books, and hurry to the culprit’s residence to set the illicit things on fire and burn the whole residence.
Books must be burned because they breed confusion and discontent. They cause people to question the happiness that is paramount in this society. The whole purpose is “happiness” and people are encouraged to engage in behaviors that promote the feeling.
For example, people drive at reckless speeds for enjoyment, never minding the human lives that are at times killed in the process. If there is a fatality, the police remove the body and burn it as soon as possible … no one wants to be disturbed by it.
People sit in their “living rooms” not to truly live and converse about what is true and good and beautiful, but to watch on the wall-length screens the canned laughter and meaningless babble of imaginary people who do not even exist.
Husbands and wives rarely have children, but when they do, the woman almost always has a Caesarean section (who can be bothered with natural labor?), the child is placed into a nursery program almost immediately, and schools functionally raise the children nine days out of ten as the parents are too busy being “happy.”
It is rare to find someone outside in the natural world, walking and observing the created world. Instead, people take public transit. Everywhere music is blasted with bass pumping. The percussive rhythm drives out any deep thought someone may have—need to preserve the state of happiness, right? Many people wear earbuds that provide a constant flow of news reports or music.
Such is the society in Fahrenheit 451. But, as the protagonist wonders at one point, how did it get to this?
Technology, mass exploitation, and minority influences led to the burning of books. With the invention of new technology, the pace of life became faster and faster. People wanted things immediately, now. Classics became condensed into summaries, into paragraphs, into a quick sentence. People didn’t want books—they wanted snippets and catch-phrases. Consider in our own society the shift from books to magazines to Facebook to Twitter to Instagram: now people only want a visual snapshot; even the dozen words on Twitter feels too lengthy.
With radio and television, things had to appeal to a mass audience. Thus, content became simplified, in order to be enjoyed by the largest amount of people possible.
The rule of the minorities drove the final nail in the coffin of books. Minority groups took objection to the subject matter. It doesn’t matter which minority: this one found this particular aspect offensive, another complained that this was prejudiced against him. Therefore, tabloids and sex magazines became the only books left that were politically correct, provided instant gratification, and wouldn’t disturb anyone’s peace of mind.
I sat in a hairdresser’s salon when I was reading Fahrenheit 451. It was a chain. People could book their appointment online … no need to speak with someone directly. Music blared over the speakers, constant music that always spoke but somehow of nothing really at all. The big topic of conversation that particular day among clients and hairdressers was an approaching snowstorm. The news reports interrupted the music from time to time, warning people to get ready and the local supermarket chain assured people that they had all the food you needed to be prepared. A mother and her daughters waited their turn. They sat silently next to each other yet distant, each scanning on her phone, their fingers moving up and down on the screen, a flow of conversation they were not part of, but still observed anyway.
I held the book in my hand and saw in front of me, in many ways, what I was reading. I also looked in the mirror and saw myself. I was not exempt from this; I am part of it. How many mornings did I pass over the book sitting on the table and grab my phone instead, to spend my time scanning through celebrity news or a Facebook feed? It was easier, faster, required less thinking. How many times was I content reading an email subject line from The New York Times and considered that sufficient for understanding the particular news report? There is no time to read a whole article! Just give me a sentence so I get it. How many dinners or family gatherings does the talk center on trite and trivial matters … when do we ask the big questions or really sit down and look each other in the eye and ponder?
I was discussing this novel with my husband recently and he asked me whether I felt if there is ever a time when books should be burned. What about books that promote things that are objectively immoral and evil? Should they be burned? I thought about it and answered: no.
No, I don’t think books should ever be burned. You can burn a book, but you cannot burn ideas. There was a person behind that book. Even if you destroy the text, the thinking and opinions expressed in it remain. And if we are to influence those ideas for the good, we need to understand them in order to present a cogent counterpoint.
Not to mention—if I say a particular book should be burned, what is to prevent someone else from arguing that my book should be burned? It could easily become a free-for-all with everyone finding an objection in every book and hence Fahrenheit 451 and the burning of all books.
Ray Bradbury imagined a future world not that different from our own and perhaps the reader of Fahrenheit 451 will feel as I did, that in many ways I am not that different from the people in Bradbury’s world. But I can also be like Guy Montag, whose eyes are opened from the blindness and whose mind starts to ask the right questions and pursue the knowledge we are capable of learning. We were created for a far more perfect happiness.