Fahrenheit 451

I am sad to say that I never read this book before now. The way this book had always been presented to me was on the merits of its premise, which I am sure you all know, either through word of mouth or the film — it’s about a world where firemen burn books to keep the world safe from the effects of reading.

A good premise, I always thought, but if I want something premise-driven the novel is my last stop, behind comic books, films, and video games. What I like in a novel is execution and density.

I finished this book last night, and I’m stunned by it’s beauty.

What I had never understood until now was just what a brilliant writer Bradbury was. There are passages in this book that are a mixture of Joyce, London, and Steinbeck all rolled up in one. (Am I overselling now? Possibly. But not by much.) Here’s a sample:

Montag said nothing but stood looking at the women’s faces as he had once looked at the faces of saints in a strange church he had entered when he was a child. The faces of those enamelled creatures meant nothing to him, though he talked to them and stood in that church for a long time, trying to be of that religion, trying to know what that religion was, trying to get enough of the raw incense and special dust of the place into his lungs and thus into his blood to feel touched and concerned by the meaning of the colourful men and women with the porcelain eyes and the blood-ruby lips. But there was nothing, nothing; it was a stroll through another store, and his currency strange and unusable there, and his passion cold, even when he touched the wood and plaster and clay. So it was now, in his own parlour, with these women twisting in their chairs under his gaze, lighting cigarettes, blowing smoke, touching their sun-fired hair and examining their blazing fingernails as if they had caught fire from his look. Their faces grew haunted with silence. They leaned forward at the sound of Montag’s swallowing his final bite of food. They listened to his feverish breathing. The three empty walls of the room were like the pale brows of sleeping giants now, empty of dreams. Montag felt that if you touched these three staring brows you would feel a fine salt sweat on your finger-tips. The perspiration gathered with the silence and the sub-audible trembling around and about and in the women who were burning with tension. Any moment they might hiss a long sputtering hiss and explode.
Montag moved his lips.

“Let’s talk.”

There’s a second thing at work here too. I always heard that this book is about censorship. It’s not. There are long passages in the book that specifically say the censorship is merely window dressing. The book is about what happens in a TV culture, where art and news becomes mere repetitive activity rather than individual experiences. There are some wonderfully comic moments in it dealing with the vapidity of television:

“I had a nice evening,” she said, in the bathroom.
“What doing?”
“The parlour.”
“What was on?”
“Programmes.”
“What programmes?”
“Some of the best ever.”
“Who?”
“Oh, you know, the bunch.”
“Yes, the bunch, the bunch, the bunch.” He pressed at the pain in his eyes and suddenly the odour of kerosene made him vomit.

Why Bradbury is relegated sci-fi while no-talents like Roth are elevated to canon status I’ll never figure out. Maybe that’s another post. But I woke up this morning after having finished this book yesterday, thinking — I need to tell people what I don’t think I was ever told: that this book fires on all cylinders, that the idea is, in a way, the smallest part of it, as clever and insightful as it is. If you’re looking for something to read over Thanksgiving, it would be hard to do better.

Incidentally, this book has rekindled my interest in reading sci-fi novels — I’ve read some cyberpunk, but would welcome some suggestions, particularly of books with a depth of psyche in them, like this one.


5 Comments on “Fahrenheit 451”

  1. Russ says:

    It’s an amazing book. I think I read it in school in 9th grade or so.

    Another great ‘not-really-sci-fi’ book to re-visit (or visit for the first time) is ‘Slaughterhouse Five.’

  2. Ooh, how exciting. Ursula Leguin, The Left Hand of Darkness–questioning gender and the social structures built around–Le Guin’s Dispossessed, utopian sci fi questioning individual ownership, and capitalism. Or Bruce Sterling’s Zeitgeist, the theme of which I don’t know how to identify, except that it’s something to do with narrative, but is a fave of mine; Sterling is flashy writing in the best way. I can’t think of any sci fi writer who compares to Bradbury for pure sweet writerly goodness, though.

  3. Gee Michael, I like Bradbury, but I also like Roth! It’s like comparing apples and widgets…

    Cheers!

  4. Cindy says:

    Thank goodness this never happened: From Wikipedia “In July 1994, a new film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 began development with the studio Warner Bros. and actor Mel Gibson, who planned to star in the lead role. Scripts were written by Bradbury, Tony Puryear, and Terry Hayes.[9] With the project estimated to be expensive and Gibson believing himself too old to portray the film’s protagonist Guy Montag,[10] the actor decided in 1997 to instead direct the film. By 1999, he had planned to begin filming with actor Brad Pitt in the lead role, but Gibson was forced to postpone due to Pitt’s unavailability.[9] Actor Tom Cruise was also approached for the lead role, but a deal was never made.[10] According to Gibson, there was difficulty in finding a script that would be appropriate for the film, and that with the advent of computers, the concept of book-burning in a futuristic period may no longer work.[9″
    I wouldn’t have been able to stand any of them in the Guy Montag role.

  5. Mike says:

    @Cindy: My vote would be Daniel Craig. Or it would be, before he became Bond. He’s got a nice internal style.

    @Larry: Ok, possibly unfair to Roth — but do you remember when the NYT in 2006 asked lit critics for the greatest books in the last 25 years, and basically it was all Roth — like, *all* of his books, and Cormac McCarthy and DeLillo.

    List here: http://www.listsofbests.com/list/5737

    6 of the 22 were Roth. 6!

    I know Bradbury was not writing much in 1980, but it struck me then how narrow “literary” works had to be defined to have Roth up there six times, especially Operation Shylock, which I just found an unreadable mess of a book, as provocative as it might have been. Cyberpunk never happened? No murder mysteries in there? Boggles the mind.


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