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“Fahrenheit 451” and the Problems of A Single Story

A few nights ago, I took to Twitter to respond to all those articles I’ve seen urging people to read George Orwell’s “1984” (or, alternately, “A Brave New World“). To which I said–and continue to say–“Hey, great books!” However, for me the book to study is Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”

The reasons I can see for this are:

  • 1984” inhabits the mindscape of Stalinist Soviet Union: hulking gray buildings framed against gray skies, far removed from how someone from the U.S. views their country.
  • A Brave New World,” while prescient in certain ways, is too bizarre an environment for today’s readers
  • Styles change, and while I find “1984” to be much more modern-sounding than “Brave New World“, Fahrenheit 451 is written in allegorical and poetic language which lends it a timelessness.

 

 Don’t want to read the rest of the post? Thug Notes video to the rescue!

 

Bradbury’s book is by far the shortest of the three works, and the easiest to get into. I challenge you to read that shining first line without wanting to continue reading. It is also written from a very American* point of view, making it ring true in a way “1984” does not.

Guy Montag, is a Fireman. In the world of “Fahrenheit” since all homes have been rendered fire-proof, the role of Firemen has shifted. They now respond to any reports of books being found in peoples’ houses by removing the offending materials and burning them–often on the culprit’s front yard. The rationale Guy is given is that since books are the only flammable objects in a person’s house, the Firemen are doing a public service and saving lives.

Guy’s home life is an empty affair. He seems resigned to coming home to a wife who’s drugged herself to bed after spending all day interacting with her wall-screens. Guy doesn’t reflect upon the lack until he talks with the neighbor’s daughter, who is so curious, so full of questions, Montag is ashamed he hadn’t noticed how empty his life is.

When he returns home, he finds his wife Millie almost dead from overdosing on sleeping pills. Technicians arrive at his house and use a variety of machines to resuscitate Millie. While Guy watches, they pump her stomach and give her a full transfusion while also smoking and chatting among themselves. The process as described is relentless, inhumane and mechanistic: for all the wondrous technology used to save and maintain Millie alive, she is just another machine designed to continue to consume her interactive TV shows and continue a shallow, incurious existence.

This suicide attempt, mirrored by a scene where a woman is willing to jump atop a heap of books Guy is burning, immolating herself, shakes him. There must be something of value in books if people offer their lives as willing sacrifice to save them. He takes a book from the burning pile, and slips it into his pocket.

This leads to one of the most important themes of the book, one that is often misconstrued: “Fahrenheit 451” is not about censorship.

An aside: a few years ago, someone posted a news article about the new standard for webpages not available for “legal reasons,” which essentially means they’re censored. “HTTP 451” was the code agreed upon, an obvious reference to “Fahrenheit 451.” I posted I’d read the book a few months prior, and didn’t agree that Bradbury was talking about censorship. Instead, he was warning about the perils of technology that appears to connect us, but is–in fact–keeping us each in our own silos. Just like Millie, who didn’t talk to the neighbors for weeks or months at a stretch, but talked with her TV “family” every day.

I get it: burning books, taken out of context, and flattened into The One Thing A Story’s About makes “Fahrenheit 451” seem like it’s only about censorship. But, to me, the censorship is a symptom of a larger environment. I’ll detail that a little later.

Now, back to the book.

It isn’t until Guy takes the book that his supervisor, Beatty, approaches him. At first, he’s accommodating, but as Guy continues to deny having taken any books, he becomes more menacing. Beatty is fascinating and chilling by turns, his speeches are filled with references to the Bible and Shakespeare. Lest we forget, “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” a Shakespeare quote inferred in Beatty’s arguments. He tells Guy books are contradictory, treacherous, complicated, and are not easy to collapse down into a single, simple story.

Beatty tells Guy the danger of books was the offense people felt. The mass culture’s minority voices, augmented by their technological interconnection, caused a response from the government, and the re-definition of the role of what Firemen did (especially in light of how all homes were now fireproofed). Books were not valued in the mass culture anymore, and keeping them in otherwise fireproof houses was dangerous to peoples’ health.

The idea of burning books, then, is a market-based solution. Firemen are part of a jobs program, ensuring people whose jobs have “moved on” continue to work. Therefore, the government’s decision to repurpose Firemen into their new role is the hallmark of a responsive and market-based democracy.

Circling back to the online discussion I’d had, the irony is the insistence on collapsing “Fahrenheit 451” into a single story. The more I disputed the claims “Fahrenheit 451” is only about censorship the more vehement and offended people became.

I won’t spoil the resolution, but suffice to say things Don’t End Well.

 

* Being from Puerto Rico, the way people in the U.S. use “American” is a Single Story as well; Canada as well as all the countries in Central and South America are “American,” too. I wonder if I called “Cien Años de Soledad” the Great American Novel, would people in the U.S. would get offended?

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