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.
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 was on?”
“Some of the best ever.”
“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.