landmark science fiction #4: Fahrenheit 451


…and the last dystopia for the time being, although I may allow Ray Bradbury his own entry later as an author, because this isn’t actually my favorite of his works. It’s just the best known.

Before I go any further:
     1) yes, it’s ironic that Fahrenheit 451, a book about a world in which reading is outlawed in favor of television, is among the most frequently challenged books out there. (It’s a common misconception that Bradbury intended the primary theme of the book to be “literal burning of books serves as a symbol for banning books to suppress the ideas within them.” The reality is a trifle subtler.)
     2) yes, Bradbury picked that precise number because it sounded nice, not because he’d done extensive research on the subject. Although 451F is approximately the temperature at which paper ignites, the exact temperature at which “paper” ignites depends on a number of things, not least what kind of paper (what fiber it’s made out of, how thick it is) it is and how loosely it’s packed (there’s a reason why you crumple the newspaper up when laying a fire)

For those who haven’t been paying attention to literature: in the future world of Fahrenheit 451, books have been banned in favor of the future equivalent of television–broadcast not to a measly little set but to an entire wall or walls of your house. Reality television in surroundsound AND -vision, complete with pauses for viewers’ participation in the events depicted. Firemen no longer put fires out, as all houses are fireproof, but rather burn books. The protagonist, Guy Montag, as so many of those in his profession before him have done, begins to doubt whether the way things are in his world is the way they ought to be or even the way he wants them to be. In Montag’s case, this fatal (from a professional standpoint) reverie is inspired by catching a glimpse of one line of poetry in a book as he and his coworkers prepare to destroy an old woman’s collection, and perpetuated by realizing that to some people, books really are worth dying for, as the woman chooses to incinerate herself along with her own books rather than let them be destroyed by someone else. He throws in his lot with the book lovers, now in hiding, and escapes the world he has known just as it implodes, destroying itself.

This is one of the books which, with some considerable justification, gets assigned in introductory literature classes at a range of levels. It’s short, simple, and approachable, and the theme–destruction of that which the kids are beginning to study–makes it a shooin for this kind of course. Nearly 60 years after its original publication, it’s an odd mix of futuristic science (the robotic bloodhound, armed with syringes, which hunts Montag) and partially outdated technology (kerosene still is sold but there are better things with which to start fires and cause explosions). I think it’s still worth reading, although in fairness it’s not the only work out there on censorship. I’d say just a good one with which to start reading about censorship and dystopias.

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