My librarian friend Angie shared an article on Facebook decrying our frightening decline in reading, and its effect on our elections. Introducing the article, Angie posed the question, “What one book do you think everyone should read at least once?”
Picked your book yet? You know which one I chose. After scanning in my head many of the books you likely are considering yourself at this moment, Fahrenheit 451 seemed so obvious when my scan reached it that my brain pushed select and I proceeded with no more ado.It was high time, too, as, unthinkable though it may be of a lifelong avid reader, I’d not yet opened the cover of the 1953 science fiction classic about a dystopian future where books—any books—were illegal. So illegal, they were, that fire departments comprised, instead of firefighters, firestarters. The alarms they raced to answer in their kerosene-laden trucks were called in by people reporting a suspicion that books were at a particular address. The books were burned at the scene, usually along with the building and, on at least one occasion, the building’s book-hoarding occupant.
I’d always been aware of Fahrenheit 451’s book-burning theme as well as the title’s significance (the supposed temperature at which books ignite). Maybe the idea was too distressing to wish to read a story about it. Then there was the science fiction factor, a category that’s never generated much enthusiasm in me. I avoided the movie as well, despite a lifelong infatuation with Julie Christie and an abiding admiration of Oscar Werner’s talent. But now, suddenly, confronted with friend Angie’s incendiary question, the obstacles were gone. I knew it was time.
What I hadn’t expected, at least not consciously, was the startling knockout timeliness of Fahrenheit 451. This, for example, as Faber, the old professor, reminds Montag, the rebel fireman, how their nightmare state came about:
Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord. You firemen provide a circus now and then at which buildings are set off and crowds gather for the pretty blaze, but it’s a small sideshow indeed, and hardly necessary to keep things in line… People are having fun.”
I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them. And then the Government, seeing how advantageous it was to have people reading only about passionate lips and the fist in the stomach, circled the situation with your fire-eaters.
“So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.
I might have gasped, aloud, reading those passages, apprehending their electric immediacy, their awful insidious currency. I gape anew with each reading, yet, though written more than half a century ago! The fateful trend toward passive consumerism and ultimate illiteracy is malignantly alive and thriving. I’m wondering now if my reluctance to read Fahrenheit 451 over the decades since it first appeared was more a response to a chilling subconscious intimation, from its theme alone, that Ray Bradbury had done something much more important than merely write an alarming novel, that he in fact had divined a prophesy.
Bradbury’s narrative, besides its philosophical insight and lyricism, is what today’s publishing marketers call “a thriller” or “suspense”. Fahrenheit 451 is both. Montag gradually metamorphizes into all-out rebellion, sparked by a teenage neighbor girl whose family has not succumbed to the prevailing herd mentality Faber characterizes as “the most dangerous enemy to truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh, God, the terrible tyranny of the majority.” The rebel fireman eventually finds himself the object of a nail-biting chase involving swarms of helicopters and a relentless mechanical hound with eight legs, a cruelly efficient computer brain and a retractable needle that injects poison into its captives.
Montag takes up with an underground band of former literature professors who avoid cities and travel by night. They’ve devoted themselves to memorizing great works of literature in the event some day humanity will want to remember its roots. “Some day, some year, the books can be written again,” one of his fellow fugitives tells him, “The people will be called in, one by one, to recite what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damn thing over again. But that’s the wonderful thing about man; he never gets so discouraged or disgusted that he gives up doing it all over again, because he knows very well it is important and worth the doing.”
So, after finally reading Fahrenheit 451, would I recommend it as “the one book everyone should read at least once?” Well, I’m sure glad I did. Thanks for the prompt, Angie!
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]