Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury
Hardcover, Special Edition, 227 pages
Harper Voyager, March 28, 2013
(first published 1953)
Classics, Dystopian Fiction, Literary Fiction, Science Fiction

Book Synopsis:
The terrifyingly prophetic novel of a post-literate future.
Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness. Even so, Montag is unhappy; there is discord in his marriage. Are books hidden in his house? The Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department, armed with a lethal hypodermic, escorted by helicopters, is ready to track down those dissidents who defy society to preserve and read books.

The classic dystopian novel of a post-literate future, Fahrenheit 451 stands alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World as a prophetic account of Western civilization’s enslavement by the media, drugs and conformity.

Bradbury’s powerful and poetic prose combines with uncanny insight into the potential of technology to create a novel which, decades on from first publication, still has the power to dazzle and shock.

My Review

Ray Bradbury’s books make for immediate, mesmerizing, entirely compulsive reading. His prose is electrifying in its use of poetic metaphor and dramatic syntax. In his novels, the reader is instantly plunged into an alien culture, or a terrifying future, and is not really released even after the last page is turned.

I had been postponing reading this novel for years. I am, after all, a confirmed bibliophile. Reading a novel with a plot involving the burning of books would, I kept telling myself, be too traumatic for me.

I finally decided to wade in.

Need I say that I only put the book down when I absolutely had to, when reality intruded? The novel carried me along on its relentless wave of narrative. Of course, I tried not to picture the books burning as I read, but Bradbury wouldn’t let me. Not when he was describing them as living creatures, dying, their pigeon wings flapping…. The fact that I managed to endure this at all is a real tribute to the greatness of his writing.

The characters are indelibly imprinted on my brain. The most compelling, of course, is the protagonist, Montag. Equally compelling are Faber, who is obviously Montag’s alter ego, and the numinous Clarisse. She is the one who first awakens Montag to the futility of denying his own soul, the stirrings of thought and penetrating questions that reading invariably arouses. The most tragic character is Beatty, who struggles hard against his love of books, in his work as chief fireman. This struggle culminates in a final, ironic conflagration. Montag’s wife, Mildred, is to be pitied, since she is unable to acknowledge her emptiness, her consuming loneliness. She pushes away the power and beauty to be found in books. She refuses to come out of denial, preferring ‘the family’, a banal cast of characters she endlessly watches in the living room ‘wall-to-wall TV’, in order to anesthetize the deepest longings of her soul.

As I read, I became aware of a deeper sense of discomfort, underneath that elicited by the burning of books. Due to my own life experiences, I, along with this disturbed society, had been unconsciously longing for a world in which no one would ever get his or her feelings hurt – a world where everyone’s rights would be respected, especially those of minorities.

Bradbury gave me a sobering look at such a world, and it was absolutely terrifying. It was “American Idol” gone wild, a world in which people no longer thought, felt, or even communicated on a soul level with other human beings. Instead, they spent all their time being ‘happy’, through mindless, ongoing entertainment.

I realized that I didn’t want to live in such a world; it would mean the total annihilation of what makes us most deeply human – the ability to dream, to wonder, to ponder the deep truths of life.

Books and the questions they raise are incompatible with living in a world where nobody would offend anyone else. Books disturb, probe, anger and challenge. Books are flawed at times, due to their authors’ all-too-human penchant for furthering their own pet theories, however twisted they might seem to a reader. Books can make us squirm, for they can force us to face the unwanted realities we try to bury.

There is still a part of me that thinks that books such as Hitler's Mein Kampf should be burned, or at least, allowed to expire by going, and staying, out of print. The Marquis de Sade also comes to mind as an author of books with a markedly offensive subject matter. Then there’s Anais Nin, the notorious 20th-century writer of erotica. Although her prose is absolutely brilliant (I have read excerpts from her books), the subject matter of her books is prurient in the extreme. One of her books even chronicles the incestuous relationship she had with her father…

The problem is, where do you draw the line? Who decides which books merit extinction?

I don’t have a final, satisfactory answer.

And so I am left feeling restless and slightly depressed, although I’m glad to have read this novel, nevertheless. It has caused me to ponder what I really and truly believe regarding the banning of books, and their potentially harmful influences.

Yet another uncomfortable element of the plot is Montag’s desperate, evil act toward the end of the novel. I suppose it is inevitable, however. It is indeed immoral, but then, so is the entire, nihilistic society he is a part of. It is the desperate act of a man who has turned on a symbol of that society, and so, turned on himself, in a sense, in order to be reborn as a new man, a man who thinks and feels, even if doing so causes him some measure of unhappiness. This act could, itself, be considered a harmful influence on a reader, since Montag evades punishment. Yet, as an act of rebellion, of a misplaced sort of justice, it is totally fitting. Therein lies “the treason of the artist”, as Ursula K. LeGuin puts it. For the artist makes meaning out of pain, suffering, and tragedy. Furthermore, this is also part of the value to be found in books.

The symbol of rebirth is ubiquitous in the novel. At one point, the myth of the Phoenix is mentioned. Ironically, civilization is being reborn out of the very fire it has used to destroy the very objects that had given it meaning – books.

By the end of the novel, groups of people have quietly begun the reconstruction, the return to reading. It is a movement that is slowly gathering momentum. Civilization, suggests Bradbury, as Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz was to affirm years later, is constantly rising from the ashes of every Dark Age in order to reinvent itself.

So I know that I will be re-reading this book sometime in the near future, as I intend to do with Miller’s. Both are books that apparently dwell on despair, only to end with a feeling of hope.

Bradbury has once again sparked my imagination and tickled my intellect. He also refuses to let me forget his incredible take on a future that may or may not turn out to become all too real, even in the digital age.

About The Author

(From Goodreads)
Ray Bradbury, American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, screenwriter and poet, was born August 22, 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois. He graduated from a Los Angeles high school in 1938. Although his formal education ended there, he became a "student of life," selling newspapers on L.A. street corners from 1938 to 1942, spending his nights in the public library and his days at the typewriter. He became a full-time writer in 1943, and contributed numerous short stories to periodicals before publishing a collection of them, Dark Carnival, in 1947.

His reputation as a writer of courage and vision was established with the publication of The Martian Chronicles in 1950, which describes the first attempts of Earth people to conquer and colonize Mars, and the unintended consequences. Next came The Illustrated Man and then, in 1953, Fahrenheit 451, which many consider to be Bradbury's masterpiece, a scathing indictment of censorship set in a future world where the written word is forbidden. In an attempt to salvage their history and culture, a group of rebels memorize entire works of literature and philosophy as their books are burned by the totalitarian state.

Other Bradbury works include The October Country, Dandelion Wine, A Medicine for Melancholy, Something Wicked This Way Comes, I Sing the Body Electric!, Quicker Than the Eye, and Driving Blind. In all, Bradbury has published more than thirty books, close to 600 short stories, and numerous poems, essays, and plays. His short stories have appeared in more than 1,000 school curriculum "recommended reading" anthologies.
Mr. Bradbury passed away on June 5, 2012.
Online Links


Brian Joseph said...

Your commentary on this book is phenomenal Maria.

This is one of my favorite books ever.

On the issue of books and ideas that offend us and censorship. I think that this gets complicated.

I am a big believer that literature and other art needs to, at least some of the time, examine the dark side of life as well as throw out controversial and darker ideas.

With that, there are horrible and downright reprehensible books as well as ideas out there. In addition I believe that most ideas and books need to be open to criticism. There is a movement in our society (Gamergate is an example) that seems to confuse the criticism of ideas with censorship.

Ironically books and other speech that criticize other books and ideas are themselves speech that should not be censored. Folks who attack cultural critics tend to quote Bradbury and Orwell a lot. In my opinion they are mostly off track.

What makes it even more complicated that even civil and calm criticism sometimes leads to situations where worthy ideas are suppressed and become unpopular, at least temporarily. I think that Bradbury was, in part, trying to warn us about this in this novel.

In the end I am optimistic. I think that in the very long run, in a society that does not censor ideas, the best ideas will win out. I do not think that we are headed towards the nightmare depicted in this book.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

Thanks so much for the compliment!

This is one of my favorite books as well, although, as I stated in my review, the topic was a painful one for me. If I were to see an actual book-burning, I would get hysterical. Thank God we don't have such things going on in this country! Well, there might be some fanatical fundamentalist Christians doing this type of thing in some isolated parts of the South. But, overall, it's a rare thing.

I am definitely against censorship, although, of course, there are books that would be very uncomfortable reading for me, and which I consider to be totally worthless trash. The "Fifty Shades of Grey" series is a prime example. As you know, my recent reading of "Rebecca" made me quite uncomfortable.

The issue is indeed a complicated one. I do not condone the criticism of ideas; indeed, this is the very bedrock of our democracy. What does concern me, however, coming as I do from a Christian background, is the blatant espousal of immorality. Still, readers do need to be able to determine whether or not they will read such books.

You might remember the pedophilia controversy regarding Amazon a few years back. Amazon was selling a book that was a GUIDE for pedophiliacs. It was supposed to help them "cope" with their perversion, and taught techniques to avoid detection! I was totally OUTRAGED at this, and joined in the boycotting of Amazon. I even posted about this on my Facebook page (I did not have a Twitter account at the time; the situation is now reversed, and I hardly post on Facebook anymore).

Amazon finally pulled the book, and it's no longer available on the site. This was a case of justified censorship. Why? Because pedophilia is a crime, punishable by law. Helping criminals to commit a crime, and get away with it, is obviously insane, not to mention unacceptable. It would be comparable to selling a book that actually guides terrorists in the U.S. in how to make bombs, use them, and then get away with the crime!

But going back to Bradbury, I think that the idea that books cause dissension, and therefore, unhappiness, is a very true one. However, people don't have to read them. Had I known, for instance, that "Rebecca" would portray Max de Winter as a murderer, and worse, that he got away with the crime, I certainly would not have read it. Just as bad is the depiction of his nameless wife going along with covering up the crime!

Bradbury is entirely right about "mindless entertainment". Things like reality TV and all those silly game shows ("Jeopardy" is a noted exception) do tend to dull the brain. I will never understand how people can prefer to sit for hours watching this stuff, instead of picking up an interesting book.

I agree with you that we are not headed toward the nightmare depicted in "Fahrenheit 451". Not as long as this country continues to abide by the Constitution, and retains its democratic form of government. Let us hope for the best!

Thanks for the thought-provoking comment!! : )

Hibernators Library said...

That's a fantastic review! This is a book I've been wanting to read for a very long time, and it looks like you really thought about the meaning of the book. You make me want to read it even more, now.

Maria Behar said...

Hi, Rachel!

Thanks so much for the compliment on my review!

This is indeed an amazing novel, one with a lot of depth to it, and in fact, is one of my favorites of all time. (The other are "Jane Eyre", "The Lord of the Rings", "Narcissus and Goldmund", and "Magister Ludi"._

I'm so glad I've made you want to read this book even more! You really should make it a priority. This is a richly rewarding, poignant, tale, as well as unforgettable one!

Thanks for leaving such a great comment!! : )

Hibernators Library said...

Hmm, I've never read the last two. In fact, never heard of the penultimate one.

Maria Behar said...

Hi, Rachel!

The last two novels are by one of my favorite writers, Hermann Hesse. The novel "Magister Ludi" is also known as "The Glass Bead Game". Hesse won the Nobel Prize for it in 1946. I highly recommend this author!! Although I haven't read all of his novels, there's one I totally dislike -- "Steppenwolf". The two I mentioned above are my favorites, and I'd like to read them again! There are more of his novels I'd love to read, and need to get to.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!! Thanks for commenting again!! : )