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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I wrote recently about rereading some of my old favorites and seeing how they stack up against my memories. One of my favorite books from my early teens (and here I must admit that at this time in my life I was mostly reading Edgar Rice Burroughs) is Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. When I read this novel all those years ago it stood in my mind as a testament against censorship and the people that were fighting to stop my questioning and cease the spread of knowledge. A funny thing happened when I reread the novel; I realized that it is not about censorship at all.

Bradbury wasn't writing about how the state is trying to keep us down. He wasn't arguing against "the Man." He was warning us about what we are in danger of doing to ourselves. Fahrenheit 451 is the story of Guy Montag, a firefighter whose job it is to set fires, specifically to set fire to books. Guy doesn't have a problem with burning books; in fact, he's never really thought about it. He's just doing his job. Then he meets someone for whom life is more than just coming and going. Someone who questions and experiences life. Suddenly, Guy becomes curious about what is in those books. The trouble with books, Guy is told, is that they make people sad. Thinking is difficult, questioning leads to unanswerable conundrums. It is far easier to ignore problems and disappear into what Bradbury perceives as the ultimate enemy of intelligence - television.

I feel like now is the time for me to tell you that this novel begins with an attempted suicide. Guy's wife, Mildred, almost kills herself. She is neither happy nor unhappy. She is so complacent, so bored, that she takes one sleeping pill after another until she falls into sleep or a coma, whichever comes first. Mildred lives in such a hyper aware state that she is aware of nothing; in fact, she cannot even recall her near death experience the next morning. She is fed a steady diet of television and headlines, thus has never had to be bothered to think for herself or ask any questions. Consequently, she has never felt the unhappiness that can be caused by searching for answers that cannot be found.

As Guy begins to question the life he shares with Mildred, he becomes increasingly bemused by her behavior. At one point he is questioning her, demanding that she provide him answers to questions she cannot fathom. Finally, Mildred shouts "leave me alone" to which Guy replies, "that's all very well, but how can I leave myself alone? We need not to be left alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?" And there it is. What Bradbury was saying, what I've been trying to say. The questioning, the bothering, the thinking, that gadfly upon us that Socrates so insisted we need - that is the way of life.

So no, Fahrenheit 451 is not about censorship. It is a story about willful ignorance. It warns of the dangers of not doing things because they are hard or ignoring the things that make us feel sad or confused. When I first read this book I loved it because it fought against censorship and some grand idea I held about "the Man." Now, I love this book because it reminds me why I am alive. To be alive is to be struggling. Books are the purveyors of ideas - our great weapon in this struggle.

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