Review: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

I can’t help but think that it is presumptuous of me–li’l, nobody ol’ me–attempting a review of Fahrenheit 451 (1953), the rare science fiction book to achieve crossover “classic” status. And if a review of the book is unnecessary, given its age and fame, and even if I have nothing original to add to the conversation, well, this is my blog, isn’t it? It’s my corner of the 24 hour media cycle, and this space is devoted to my encounters with the books I read. And isn’t it better to write about good SFF than it is bad speculative fiction?

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is, of course, the temperature at which paper combusts, and the novel opens with book burning. “It was,” says Bradbury of his firemen, who, counterintuitively, start fires, “a pleasure to burn.” Thus Bradbury introduces the reader to a future of enforced censorship, in which the harboring of books is a crime against the state, resulting in the burning of one’s property, and, occasionally, the “disappearance” of the criminal. Published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 clearly recalls what was at the time the recent history of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, as well as the American context of Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt.

Guy Montag, a fireman, is our hero, an everyman who is provoked into questioning his way of life by a chance encounter with his teenage neighbor, Clarisse McClellan. Clarisse is a dreamy wisp of a thing. Unlike her peers (and, indeed, her elders), Clarisse is interested in conversation, and nature, and why things happen the way they do. Montag is at first affronted and confused by his conversations with Clarisse, but his encounters cause him, too, to ask “why.” Montag is reminded of the books he has, illegally, hidden in his home–and at which he will soon begin to look.

Fahrenheit 451 is commonly interpreted as a screed against censorship, and this is undoubtedly true. Bradbury predicts a future in which the state controls media, banning certain types–books–while cultivating others, particularly television. Consider, for instance, Montag’s wife’s “family,” a living room-size, multi-walled television that projects people “conversing” (read: yelling, mumbling, etc.) incoherently all the time, in order to provide viewers company. News broadcasts periodically warn of impending war, but society takes no notice.

But Bradbury is pointing at more than censorship. Dave Itzkoff, in his review of the recent audiobook version of Fahrenheit 451, quotes Bradbury saying that the book “is less about Big Brother and more about Little Sister.” Itzkoff takes Bradbury to mean technology, particularly television. Perhaps Itzkoff is right, but it goes deeper than that. Bradbury repeatedly references the speed and preoccupation of society. Cars travel everywhere in excess of one hundred miles per hour. People are constantly tuned into some sort of media. Near the end of the narrative, one of Bradbury’s hobos–who are all former college professors–reveals himself to be an expert on Jose Ortega y Gasset, author of The Revolt of the Masses. “There are, above all,” Gasset says, “times in which the human reality, always mobile, accelerates, and bursts into vertiginous speeds. Our time is such a one, for it is made of descent and fall.” Ultimately, this is central theme of Fahrenheit 451, the allure and danger of pursuing pleasure in our attempts to flee the essential hollowness of life.

While Bradbury’s vision of a media-saturated, accelerated future was prescient, it is, also, inherently conservative and elitist. Culture, such as it is, remains the province of a small band of persecuted (or, perhaps, forgotten) resistors, who preserve humanity’s heritage by memorization and transmission. The common man can only be expected to continue to pursue pleasure. Montag’s dissent is spurred less by any choices on his part than it is his selection by Faber, an unemployed professor, to receive an illegal book. Female characters are particularly attracted to media, and teenagers, such as they are present, are mostly portrayed as murderous, perhaps a reflection of postwar America’s infatuation with “juvenile delinquents.” For all that Bradbury remains insightful, then, he also fears things that seem constant, or, perhaps, endemic to every generation.

Fahrenheit 451 is a classic not only of science fiction, but also of American literature. Bradbury’s prose is tense and tightly wound, and exhibits the tight control of language readers expect of him. Sci-fi lovers who have not read Fahrenheit 451 are advised to do so; those who read it previously, but not for some time, might consider reading it again soon. Recommended, required reading.

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12 thoughts on “Review: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

  1. realthog

    A neatly perceptive piece! A couple of quibbles:

    Fahrenheit 451 is, of course, the temperature at which paper combusts

    No, it ain’t. Bradbury picked the number 451 because he liked it. In reality, different papers burn at different temperatures (yes, I know, immediately obvious when someone says it, isn’t it? — I can remember smiting my forehead when someone pointed this out to me!) and they’re typically in four figures F.

    Bradbury’s prose is tense and tightly wound, and exhibits the tight control of language readers expect of him.

    But for the most part Bradbury was a very loose writer, especially later on. The mystery novels he wrote toward the end of his career are almost embarrassingly verbose.

    Myself, I’ve always had mixed feelings about Fahrenheit 451. I can see its very obvious strengths and admire the political and intellectual argument of it, but at the same time it has never, on two or three readings, actually pulled me into Montag’s world. It’s as if Bradbury had this great idea for a novelette/novella and someone (himself?) told him he should make a novel out of it; so he did so but, in so doing, lost the intensity of that initial vision.

    Is wot I think.

    Reply
    1. fromcouchtomoon

      To quibble your quibble, Bradbury actually called the Los Angeles fire department and the person on the phone told him that paper combusts at “451 degrees Fahrenheit.” He flipped it so it would sound better. He spent the rest of his life being corrected by people about combustible temperatures.

      Also, like most SF authors of the time, Bradbury was a short story author. That was the only way to get published. He worked on variations of F451 for years, which was published in different forms before it developed into the novel we know now. So, yes, you get the feel of a short story author attempting the novel form for the first time, but it’s also a product of its time and wouldn’t feel any other way.

      I wouldn’t call his prose tightly-wound either, but Bradbury’s style certainly isn’t loose. He is certified re-drafter and each word he uses is hand-selected. His is a flowery, but very cultivated, prose.

      Reply
      1. booksbrainsandbeer Post author

        Thanks, both. Actually, my comment about “tight” prose is both misstated and poorly written. I (like Meghan) enjoy Bradbury’s prose, but I agree with her that it’s more “descriptive” than it is “tight.” I would characterize it as “controlled,” though; Bradbury is clearly in charge of his sentences.

  2. admiral.ironbombs

    Very sharp and insightful review. A tip of the hat, sir.

    I’ve read several interviews where Bradbury was a bit irritated everyone reads this as a reaction to censorship, when he was inspired (as I recall) when he took a walk around his neighborhood and was passed by an oblivious someone intently tuned in to their transistor radio. He also covered a lot of the same themes in “The Pedestrian,” where nobody takes walks anymore when they can stay home and watch TV.

    But I think you hit the nail on the head; it’s not so much an issue with television in specific or technology in general but the breakneck lifestyle it can lead to, without any time to stop and smell the roses. Why take a breath and savor a book when there’s 24-hour news networks or real-time Twitter updates you can glue your face to? Weren’t you just writing a few weeks ago about ubiquitous technologies like cell phones…

    And I hate to admit it but I also have mixed feelings about Fahrenheit 451; it’s a must-read work and a brilliant, passionate argument I agree with, but the book doesn’t affect me like it does other readers. Bradbury’s short fiction grabs me; his novels—except for The Martian Chronicles, which is really just some linked short-stories, and Something Wicked—not so much.

    Reply
  3. fromcouchtomoon

    Great review, Matt. I have also picked up on a bit of that sense of conservatism from interviews and such that I’ve read. Nothing that I can specifically remember, but I just got that feeling that Bradbury is a bit more old-fashioned than most of his peers.

    Reply
  4. Tammy

    Here’s a book I need to reread, since it’s been quite some time. I think I read it in college, not for a course, but on my own. Really good review, welcome back, haven’t seen you post in some time! Happy 2015:-D

    Reply
  5. sjhigbee

    I read this book a very, very long time ago… When I was devouring all things Bradbury – and he utterly blew me away. I used to DREAM of Bradbury worlds… His writing informed my inscape – so… to be honest – nope. Not going there again. Just like I NEVER revisit precious places from the past. Not only would it be a disappointment to me now if it didn’t measure up, but also risks despoiling a host of cherished memories.

    Reply

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