Book: Fahrenheit 451
Author: Ray Bradbury
Here’s a question for you — Is it enough to be happy?
Would it be alright if one existed in a permanent state of happiness, the struggle and strife of life swept away somewhere? Would it okay for one to shut one’s eyes to the reality of life, if that was the only way to be happy?
Would that make one truly happy?
That last one is a rhetorical question, I know.
However, it is in one such dystopian world that Bradbury sets his novel.
It is a world where people have been lulled into a sense of comfort gently, slowly; so slowly that they’re well settled into it. Once in a while when reality dawns on them and the feeling of doom overwhelms them, they overdose on sleeping pills and have to have their stomachs pumped out. And then they get back to the same happy oblivion with renewed fervour.
It’s a world where thinking is forbidden because thoughts lead to discord.
All things that encourage free thought are forbidden, all situations that provoke thought avoided — there’s no leisurely strolling, no long slow driving, no quiet time, no talks and discussions either, other than those about superficial mundane things.
Large television screens, blaring mindless content cover entire walls of homes in order to discourage any kind of contemplation.
The biggest enemy of this thought-free ‘utopia’ are books, because they provoke thoughts leading to discontent and unhappiness.
And so they’re forbidden, illegal. There exists a fire department with the sole aim of finding and burning down any and all books.
Guy Montag, is one of the firemen. He’s a regular guy going about his job, enjoying it even, as he burns piles and piles of books.
One day he is called upon to demolish the book hoard of an old woman and he watches in shock and awe as she chooses to burn down with her books.
“‘There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.’”
Something shifts within him that day and he steals a copy of the Bible and keeps it hidden away at home.
He tries talking to his wife, Mildred, but she just wants to be left alone with her all screens. Trying to pull her out of her TV-induced daze, he says,
Let you alone! That’s all very well, but how can I leave myself alone? We need not to be let 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?
However for Mildred the onscreen characters are more of a family than real world people.
Finally, Guy is found out and is forced to become an outlaw.
Although a short book this one isn’t easy to read. The language is heavily metaphorical, packed with lengthy similes. Bradbury writes long winded prose that, though lyrical, may find you lost. Which is why a single reading just isn’t enough to appreciate this book.
A first reading will give you the gist, the storyline which is powerful in itself. It is the second reading that will get you to truly appreciate the beauty of the prose.
Bradbury talks of censorship and how it can take people away from reality lulling them into a false sense of well-being, discouraging them from exploring new things, thinking new thoughts.
The book reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984
Interestingly, I stumbled upon a piece according to which Bradbury hadn’t intended for the book to be about censorship. Rather he wanted to focus on the ills of television and how it was turning people into addicted zombie-like creatures, incapable of free thought.
No matter what his intent, this is classic that’s worth investing time and effort in.
A note on book burning
The idea of burning books isn’t a new one. The first incident in history is found in China. Later, the Nazi book burning is well known and has been written about in many well-known books including The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.
Here’s an interesting twitter thread you might like to read.
Did you know that there have been over half a dozen instances of burning Harry Potter in the United States? The idea of a girl performing magic was apparently beyond blasphemous! Read this entire piece here that talks of these incidents and gives a history of book-burning.
More recently, a group of schools in Ontario, Canada burnt down thousands of books for ‘inappropriate content’ including racism and other discriminatory behaviour. These included books by Dr Seuss as also Tintin and Asterix comics.
No matter what the content, no book deserves to be burnt.
More importantly, history needs to be read and remembered, no matter how shameful it is.