“Maybe the books can get us half out of the cave. They just might stop us from making the same damn insane mistakes!” (KL 951)
It’s been a long time since I first read this book, but I enjoyed a return to the classic. I believe I first came to it back in college as I went through my dystopia craze with books like Orwell’s 1984 and the Newberry winner, The Giver. I’ve read many other such tales through the intervening years, but few of those books have proven as prophetic as Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
While the future world Bradbury creates does involve an ever-watchful government like that of 1984, his emphasis is less on their existence and more on their means of subjecting the will of the people to their own, namely the desensitization of the population through entertainment and the removal of books and the freedom-of-ideas which books represent. As in Arthur C. Clarke’s “I Remember Babylon” (and even, to an extent, Pixar’s Wall-E), Bradbury’s characters have become enslaved by the freedom they find in synthetic entertainment, ever-present and inviting.
For Bradbury and Clarke both, their prophetic wariness of the future’s entertainment and escapism set them apart as great visionaries. In their estimations, if a ruling party can distract its people enough, it can then become Slave-master to a willing population. Whereas Clarke foresaw the proliferation of satellite television boasting options upon options of every distraction and evil imaginable (with basically the same usage as today’s internet), Bradbury foresaw the 24/7 flood of entertainment that would dull humanity to what truth and information actually matter. In Fahrenheit 451, this came in the form of “sea shells” (our ear-buds) playing music night and day and image screens (our devices) displaying constant and interactive reality TV about everyday life; meanwhile firemen collect and burn the books of private citizens and all the world views them as heroes. Could these men have described today’s world any more clearly?
Bradbury’s main character—a fireman himself—one day steals a Bible from the home of a woman who chooses to burn to death with her books rather than continue under a regime which burns them from her. He adds this Book to his surprisingly full private library which he’s heisted in piecemeal over the years but has been too afraid to read. While the King James Bible that he steals is not necessarily the key to his ultimate freedom in the story, Bradbury explains why: it’s not the books themselves that matter, but the freedom they represent. As one character describes this how freedom can be access through books: “Number one, as I said, quality of information. Number two: leisure to digest it. And number three: the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the inter-action of the first two.” (KL 1105)
Perhaps I shouldn’t have read this book on my Kindle, and perhaps e-books are just step fifteen down the slippery slope towards that dystopic world. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the read and will now cherish even more living the life of a Bibliomaniac.