Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury, Ray, 1953

Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury, Ray - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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Ray Bradbury has always had a special place in my heart. All the good reviewers will tell you, "when writing a review of a particularly good author, try not to call him or her 'lyrical.' That word lost its special meaning in book reviews dozens of years ago." And they are pretty much right. I do see that word used a lot in book reviews, and I always roll my eyes, because they very often don't mean it, or it doesn't really apply. But with Bradbury, I'm pretty hard pressed to find another adjective that I think sums up the style of his prose. Lyrical pretty much fits perfectly. Dream-like is another that I like to use with this particular work. Dream-like in the sense that the language exposes individual character's states of mind, sort of, and makes for ironic conversation between the characters that is pretty dense, even if it is well metered and (gasp!) lyrical. Bradbury is one of the best writers in the genre, and probably one of the most prolific as well. He has put out hundreds of short stories, dozens of scripts for stage and screen (large and small) and is well known for this book, and the two fix-ups Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Martian Chronicles. This one is an absolute classic of the genre, and is deservedly taught in high schools around the world. Five out of five stars.

Fahrenheit 451 is the story of Guy Montag, who is employed as a fireman in a future North American dystopic society. Firemen in this world are not charged with fighting blazes, but instead are issued trucks with kerosene tanks and high pressure nozzles. Their job is to find hoards of books, which are for the most part banned, and burn them. Montag is at first happy with his job, and subconsciously does his best to fit into a socially acceptable mold. Society in this case is almost hyper-kinetic, and I think Bradbury did a pretty good job of forecasting our own lifestyles, from high speed freeways to giant TV's, Blue-Tooth like devices and an over commercialized/Keeping-Up-With-The-Joneses attitude, that has the effect of separating people from their neighbors and leads to wandering gangs of ax-wielding teens who murder at random.

But Montag meets a seventeen year old beauty on his block named Clarisse who tells him that she is insane, and urges him to slow his life down and to stop and smell the flowers. In this society that attitude is actually illegal, but Montag is as drawn to her ideals as he is to her body. After a few life-altering meetings with this wise-beyond-her-years beauty, she disappears and Montag becomes convinced that the State has taken her and given the death penalty her for her "crimes." Clarisse's attitude makes a mark on Montag's psyche which is deepened by a woman whose house Montag helps burn down. The woman was hoarding books, so Montag and his crew went to do their job. The woman begs Montag to stop, and he feels a twinge of guilt, but he proceeds under orders, and the woman allows herself to be immolated with her most prized possessions. At least, save for one, which Montag pilfers for his own, small collection of contraband books.

What Bradbury was writing about here is the maturation of an immature adult into a wise man, and he uses the books as a catalyst to really get Montag thinking about what it is he has done with his life, and how society could go so wrong to censor itself. Montag first gets an inkling of the error of his ways because of an unwise sexual stirring for Clarisse, and her disappearance confuses him enough that he starts to question other aspects of his life and society as well. The real moment of truth was watching the woman who committed suicide in front of him, but Bradbury does not really hit you over the head until Montag has had a chance to think for himself about what has happened, and discuss it with Beatty, his supervisor at the fire station. I think that the individual's maturation is important to what Bradbury is saying here, but its in this conversation that the theme that was the most emotional feeling for Bradbury came out, and that is the death of intellectualism due not only to censorship, but over individual's own sense of inadequacy and a lust to equalize in a kind of Harrison Bergeron manner. The burning of the books is a metaphor for that, while the fire itself, contrarily, is a catalyst for Montag's growth as a man, and the actual rediscovery of reading is symbolic of Montag's completion of his "coming of age."

"With scool truning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginativer creators, the word 'intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally 'bright,' did most of hte reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make the cower, to judge themselves against. So! a book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man's mind. Who knows who might be the target for the well read man? Me? I won't stomach them for a minute."

I think that this is really Bradbury's only real novel. Everything else is either a short story or a fix-up. And despite the gloomy ring I've given the story, it does end on a positive note. I will let you find out what it is for yourself. I personally think that this one is a work of art, and deserves a place on the shelf by Animal Farm and Brave New World, and others like them. Nobody should miss this one, and if you can get your kids to read it early, do so. You will not be sorry.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)

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