The story takes place in a future version of America where most books are illegal. Fireman, instead of putting fires out, now start them by burning books and the houses of those caught with books. Society had lost its taste for deep thinking, preferring instead sporting events, fast driving, endless entertainment via earpieces they listen to and parlour walls that act as an expanded TV and directly involve the viewer. Concurrently, books were shortened, and then books that made people think fell out of favor and then were deemed upsetting to the peace and happiness of society, as different groups would protest what different books said, so they were banned. As a fire captain later explained, “We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the constitution says, but everyone made equal . . . A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind.” It is interesting, and scary, that what passes for tolerance today is this idea of making everyone equal and unobjectionable to each other rather than a willingness to let others have their differences.
Guy Montag is a fireman who likes his job, until he meets a different, free-spirited teen-age neighbor named Clarisse. Though I don’t think they ever talk about books specifically, her unconventional approach to life and way of thinking spark something in him, a questioning, a wondering if there is more to life. Several things fan this spark into flame: his vapid wife overdoses on sleeping pills and has to have her stomach pumped, but remembers nothing about it the next day; Clarisse and her family disappear; and a woman whose house Guy and his crew are supposed to torch chooses to die with her books. What can there be in books that someone would die for them? Guy has secretly taken a few of them and intends to find out. But he can’t make sense of them himself, so he goes to an old professor named Faber for help.
I’ll leave the plot there so as not to spoil it for those who haven’t read it. Though it was written during the McCarthy era, when there was an increased sensitivity to anyone having the remotest possibility of a tie to Communism, and Bradbury was concerned about censorship, he “usually claimed that the real messages of Fahrenheit 451 were about the dangers of an illiterate society infatuated with mass media and the threat of minority and special interest groups to books,” according to Wikipedia. He has an interesting afterward that tells how he came to write the book and something of the history of it. He also tells of one publisher wanting to publish one of his stories in an anthology with 450 others, including some from Twain and Shakespeare, all shortened, seeming a fulfilling of his predictions in the book. The book itself has been banned at times in the past due to language (many “damns,” “hells,” and taking of the Lord’s name in vain), its mention of one woman’s abortion, and its depiction of firemen. There were valid reasons for the mention of abortion and the firemen. The language I could have done without. I am not shocked by it: my father spoke that way, and I know people do, but I don’t want to fill my brain with it, so I usually avoid books with much of it. I have mixed emotions about censorship. I don’t think I believe in it at the government level, but I have no problem with reserving certain books from student’s required reading. There are some books and magazines that are just pure filthiness and at least shouldn’t be right out there next to Good Housekeeping and such. I would have no problem with censoring those, personally, but then other people would have no problem censoring some books I like: some parents protest their children having to read anything religious. Thus we have the problem Bradbury depicted: if everything can be banned that anyone would have some objection to, we’re left with nothing. As Christians, the best way to deal with the situation, I think, is not to necessarily to seek to ban everything objectionable, though there are times to protest certain actions (like one library I heard of that had the “adult” section next to the children’s section, or a required book for a student that a parent objects to, or unnecessary foul language and sex scenes in books I review): rather, if we concentrate on doing what Jesus told us to do – share the gospel and make disciples – people’s hearts will be changed and they won’t want the bad stuff. That’s not the main reason to share the gospel, but it is one side effect.
The book has a great many more layers to it than there would appear to be at first glance. SparkNotes helped me catch some of that that I missed at first and caused me to appreciate Bradbury’s skill as a writer. The book is one of those classics I had heard of for years and always wanted to get to someday: I am glad that now I have.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)