To say that I love reading would be quite an understatement. Last week, I wrote about how even a bad novel can be inspiring, because each book provides the reader with a unique perspective on the world. So imagine what good books can do to you. Reading matters, and I think the world would be a very different place if there were no such things as books. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, a modern classic, is about exactly this topic: what if books were forbidden, or people would simply stop reading them? Read on if you want to know what would happen!
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is about Guy Montag, who lives in a dystopian America, in which books and knowledge are forbidden and people are fed a constant stream of mindless entertainment. Montag is a fireman, which means he has to burn books. One day he meets a young girl, Clarisse, who makes him reconsider his life, and he starts to realise he opposes the government’s idea of burning books, and sets out to preserve them.
Fahrenheit 451 is one of these novels many people claim to have read. I hadn’t. I have owned it for years and I knew exactly what it was about (I even watched a weird stage version of it at school, a long time ago), but I had never taken the time to actually read it. But now, I decided, the time was right. And while reading, I realised that the time for reading Fahrenheit 451 was always right, is always right, and will always be right.
Bradbury wrote a special foreword in celebration of the 50th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451, and there were two things that really struck me. Firstly, only a couple of paragraphs in, Bradbury starts by saying “I’ve always written at the top of my lungs and from some secret motives within”. He is an author with ideas and ideals, and he needs to share them with his audience. Secondly, he writes that this is a novel that keeps recreating itself, meaning that the interpretation of his ideas evolves with each new generation of readers. Let’s find out how the message of this novel has changed over time.
The overall message of this book is easy to understand: burning books is bad. But if you look at this idea closely, its meaning is quite a bit more complex than that. Bradbury was inspired both by the state of affairs in America, the McCarthy era in which there was strict censorship, and by the book burnings by the Nazis in the Second World War. Fahrenheit 451 can therefore be seen as a novel that comments on politics and censorship. The government should never abuse their power by taking away knowledge that should be available to everyone.
Bradbury claimed that his novel could also be about indifference, and about people’s lack of interest in things that are not readily available to them. This is reflected in the character of Clarisse, who tells Montag nobody likes her because she asks questions starting with why, and that’s simply not something people should worry about. In the novel, people are so concerned with their tv screens, that they don’t even realise there are other things going on. Montag’s boss, Beatty, summarises it as follows: while only a couple of individuals, minorities, started ripping out pages of books because the content was objectionable, it is the entire society who actually did the real book burning by no longer caring about what was written on these pages.
My interpretation of Fahrenheit 451 was very much influenced by our own society. While reading, I kept thinking about the newspapers claiming that fewer books are sold each year, and that young people read less and less. Instead, they are spending a considerable amount of time each day glued to their phone screens, scrolling on social media and posting messages about how good life is. I do have an Instagram account (look how wildly successful I am!), but I am not impressed. Quite the contrary; I was quite disillusioned when I realised all book posts look the same, and that all bookshelves were organised in the same colourful way (read this post if you want to do it differently). The hedonistic society presented in this novel is somewhat similar to the perfect versions of themselves people share online.
Fahrenheit 451 could not be more relevant in this day and age. I was constantly reminded of today’s cancel culture, in which everything that is deemed inappropriate is deleted or silenced. While there is definitely something to be said about taking responsibility for one’s actions, I am not sure that this is the perfect solution. This novel shows that simply deleting something, and simply turning one’s head away from more complex ideas, does not mean it is truly gone. Instead, there should be more awareness; we should be educated about difficult topics. That way, we will learn from them instead of trying to burn everything that’s improper.
The central theme of Fahrenheit 451 is fire, which has always had a double meaning. The last part of the novel is called Burning Bright, which refers to the poem The Tyger by William Blake, in which he describes how dangerous tigers are created by God, like everything else. At first, fire stands for destruction, both of books and knowledge. But fire can also mean passion, illumination, independent thought, the genesis of new ideas. This novel is about how too much fire, too much interference by the government, can be fatal, but how too little of it, a lack of passion, can have the exact same effect.
At the end of the novel, Montag meets others like him, in a part of the country uncontrolled by the government. Each of these people, who warm themselves by campfires (notice the symbolism here?), memorise a novel to keep them alive. One of them compares people to the phoenix, a mythological being which dies in flames but rises from the ashes, repeating their life cycle for all eternity. There is one major difference: we can learn from our mistakes if we take a good look at ourselves and at our society. And that, I think, is what this book is truly about: humans will always keep evolving, as long as we keep our minds open.
What did you think of Fahrenheit 451? Are books the perfect way to become more aware of who we are? Let me know in the comments! Also make sure to follow me for more book musings!