Book Review: "Farenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury
As we all know, the world of science-fiction is a place full of creativity. This genre has proved to be one of the most effective when it comes to approaching critically some of the most difficult problems in our society.
This book fell into my hands in my late teens. I had previously read “Brave New World” and “1984”, and the genre, something new for me at the time, had me captivated. I made a little research to come up with other similar titles, and here is one of my best discoveries.
"Fahrenheit 451" introduces us to a world that is different from the one we live in, but which, as we read, reminds us suspiciously of it.
In this world, where happiness is not a goal, but an obligation, reading is an activity long ago forbidden. Books are capable of awaking critical thinking, and there is nothing more harmful to happiness that the capacity to have ideas of your own.
The firefighters, historically known for extinguishing the fire, work in a different activity: Burning. More specifically, burning books. In fact, Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns, making it an adequate title for this story.
Far from being a revolutionary or an avid reader, our protagonist is a firefighter himself, that is to say, one of the men in charge of destroying those dangerous objects called books.
When the story begins, Guy Montag had been working as a firefighter for ten years. Ten years without questioning his duty, ten years without stopping to think why is he doing what he is doing.
Everything changes one night during a mission when Montag’s team receives a call informing about the existence of several books in an old woman’s house. This tragic episode will be a point of no return for the character. Not only will he begin to wonder about the nature and importance of books, but will commit a crime of enormous magnitude: Stealing a book for himself.
The protagonist’s desperate and dangerous search for meaning will lead him (And all of us readers) to an unknown land of knowledge.
Why should you be reading it?
This book has been written by one of the most talented minds I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
Ray Bradbury finished “Fahrenheit 451” in only nine days, with a rental typewriter, in the basement of a library. More than sixty-five years after its publication, the topics addressed in this novel have not grown old. If anything, they correspond to the world’s reality even more than when Bradbury wrote it.
The fist of these topics is, of course, the forgotten and neglected habit of reading. In the novel’s world, books are not only forbidden, but the situation is even more critical: People had stopped reading on their own accord. Firefighters are not as necessary as they once were. Their appearance is a kind of show, as one of the characters says.
Nowadays the lack of reading habits is not a matter of science-fiction: It is a reality. Most people that I know have read very few books in their lives, and most of these books have been read out of obligation. Schools have part of the responsibility for that. I have experienced it myself.
Literature was one of the most boring subjects at school. It was for me, and I have been in love with books ever since I learned to read. The classes were tedious: The teacher read out loud every single class, as most of the students sleep, and then we demonstrated our “reading comprehension skills” by answering a few annoyingly simple questions. We were never taught to analyze the story, the characters, or to reflect on their actions and personalities. We were never asked what we thought about the story, or how it made us feel. During the last few years of high school, my classmates did note even read the books; they search for a summary on the internet. And believe it or not, that was enough to pass all the exams. Captain Beatty, Montag’s boss, points this out.
Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume […] But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.”
This situation has been repeated over and over, and it ended up contaminating people’s ideas of what reading is, and preventing them from discovering pleasure in the activity. Finding people who enjoy reading becomes rarer every day.
Montag's job is a part of his life, and it does never occur to him to wonder about the implications it has in the world. It all changes the night they burn that house. As I mentioned above, this is a key moment in the story. The image of the old woman being consumed by the flames is an indelible one. It makes Montag (And maybe some of the readers too) wonder: What is it about books that is so important? What makes possible for a person to die for their sake?
"I don't know. We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren't happy. Something's missing. I looked around. The only thing I positively knew was gone was the books I'd burned in ten or twelve years. So I thought books might help."
The other strong suit of this work is that it has few characters, but each one of them is special and complex. Though Montag is the protagonist and the one person whose journey we are following, other characters manage to make an impression in the reader.
My favorite one is Clarisse. Her introduction to the story, was the moment when I started to find it so interesting. When I read “Fahrenheit 451” for the first time I was sixteen years old, and that solitary girl, called crazy and despised by his classmates and teachers made me feel understood and accompanied in the situation I was living myself at school.
I guess I'm everything they say I am, all right. I haven't any friends. That's supposed to prove I'm abnormal. But everyone I know is either shouting or dancing around like wild or beating up one another. Do you notice how people hurt each other nowadays? […] Sometimes I'm ancient. I'm afraid of children my own age. They kill each other. Did it always used to be that way?”
We also have to contemplate that his friendship with Clarisse causes an impact in Montag’s life. The girl puzzles, sometimes even alarm him with her “weird ideas” but she always manages to leave him thinking. I believe she is the person Montag’s cares about the most.
Clarisse's death is a surprise, and it is not addressed in detail. We do not get to know much, except what Mildred says about it. But despite that, the girl does not disappear from the story. Not really. Montag thinks about her many times throughout it.
The author has expressed after watching the 1966 movie adaptation, in which Clarisse survives and joins the books-men, that he rather likes this ending more than his own. I agree.
Faber is also a character that gives a lot to think about. His knowledge and help are fundamental for Montag as he does not only know about books but about the old times. He remembers how the world was before books were banned, and gives the first flicker of hope: Some men still remember, but like him, are too scared to act.
Thinking about it, I have concluded that every one of the characters represents a kind of person that inhabits the world:
Montag is the person who perceives that things are not right but cannot figure out exactly how it all works. But he wants to. He recognizes his ignorance and tries to educate himself and find a way to make the world a better place.
Mildred is the person that deep inside knows that things are not okay, but chooses to distract herself by the means her society offers her (TV shows, pills)
Beatty is the person who is perfectly aware of which things are wrong but uses this knowledge to consolidate his power and authority. It is maybe the most dangerous kind of person.
Faber is the person who knows what is happening, but feels powerless; he is too paralyzed by fear to do something.
And Clarisse is the person that lives feel free, despite the oppression of the world surrounding her. Her way of living should be every person’s goal.
Also, we have the book-men. I find the idea of every person becoming a book of and indescribable beauty. Those men carried the books inside themselves as treasures, as something that deserves to be protected.
The first time I read this part of the book though, I had an idea that drove me crazy for some hours: If a had to choose, which book would I want to be? Dozens of titles came to my mind in the first thirty seconds, and I started to feel like the protagonist of "Sophie's choice".
But what I find more admirable than any other thing in this work, is the fact that opposing most science-fiction novels, “Fahrenheit 451” brings us an ending that is, if not happy, at least hopeful.
And what can be most important than that?
Going out in the world every day, seeing the pains and troubles that have been haunting humanity for so long without being solved, seeing injustice, poverty, corruption, can be discouraging. But if we do not hope for better, if we are not capable of imagining a reality in which our world is a better place, how are we going to get there?
There is a quote of this book, on the very last page, in which Montag asks himself a question.
And when it came to his turn, what could he say, what could he offer on a day like this, to make the trip a little easier?”
We are living a very special moment in history. We are not sure what the world is going to look like when we got back out there. The only thing that we can tell for sure is that things will probably not be the same again. The world has changed.
So I think we should ask ourselves the same as Montag: What can we offer to make the trip a little easier, a little better for everyone?
As challenging as it may be, I am glad of one thing: We still have books.
And we still have books such as "Fahrenheit 451".
For this social distancing period (Or any other period really) I highly recommend it.
Which of these science-fiction books is the best?
If you liked my review on this book and are interested in purchasing it, you can do so at the link below.
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