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Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451

cover of Fahrenheit 451, a man made of printed-on paper in flames I feel that the conventional descriptions of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 don't do it justice. For perhaps the first quarter or so of the book I felt it was entirely too heavyhanded. After all, I've been thoroughly spoiled for the themes of the book, and honestly I'd much rather be spoiled on the action; themes really spoil everything. The thing that bothers me about dystopia is an almost fetish for the past - re-imagining what came before a paradise. Sometimes it's an idolatry of the political system that came before (civilization only exists as a city--all right, fine, the word itself is derived from civitas inextricably tied to cities, but still.) Sometimes it's putting historical figures on pedestals. A similar vein exists with high fantasy: protagonists trust the knowledge contained within books more than anything else. And dystopias sometimes demonize or play up the dangers of new technology until I feel I'm listening to another lecture: all that TV that kids watch will rot their brains! all the videogames they play will rot their brains! all those movies, all that internet! and so on. Bradbury's "Veldt", one of his short stories, has some lingering similarity in themes (about TV, incidentally.) But this passage was a much more nuanced look at the issue. Faber is an old English professor who has been hiding for years, along like most thinkers:

It's not books you need, it's some of the things that were once in books. The same things could be in the 'parlour families' today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it's not books at all you're looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.

(Faber, page 78)

Faber is speaking as someone who was educated in the past, but his words fit in with how Clarissa's living--she doesn't have the same philosophical bent or education, but she's living what Faber's speaking about. "Infinite detail and awareness", except expressed in life instead of words.

I'd heard Fahrenheit 451 being described over and over again about the perils of modern society and the dangers of not reading. And truthfully, the book does deal with burning books and firemen whose roles are twisted versions of their original purpose, but perhaps that's because Bradbury was writing in 1951 and books were a/the major way of consolidating information. And there's no resurrection of a burned book. A ripped book, maybe. A water-soaked book, maybe. Once fire gets through a book, it's gone. But the idea of the novel is much broader than books.

The other interesting point that Bradbury seems to make is that it's not a top-down movement, not really. Unlike similar novels like 1984, it's not the government. It might have been the government or a higher power, once, but now the compulsion to destroy books and bury oneself in the blunting influence of TV is from the people themselves. The fire department will show up at your house if you have books, but the firefighters aren't being forced to do it; they feel it's right to do so. Through Faber, Bradbury criticizes the pursuit of happiness at the expense of everything else like critical thinking, though he notes elsewhere that people aren't really happy, either. The protagonist's wife, despite her 24/7 immersion in her virtual Family and other content, seems to be deeply unhappy in a way she isn't even aware of (it's ambiguous whether or not she tried to commit suicide.)

I'm pretty sure I could go on for a long time dissecting this novel (what about the chief fireman? The woman who chose to burn with her books? etc) but I'm sure lots of more eloquent people have done this already, and I've spilled enough ink myself!

Fahrenheit 451's a very short book; I liked it, but I do think he's more used to writing short stories. Bradbury's writing is unexpectedly lyrical and abstract, I suppose, with a lot of metaphors and similes that took awhile to get used to, but it left me distanced from some of the action, which was really effective. I make it sound like a very anvilicious novel, but I've heard so much about it that I'm incapable of actually judging anymore. Despite this, I'd still recommend the book--if for nothing more than to understand what all the references are invoking. (And he quotes "Dover Beach"! One of my favourite poems, so it's got my vote.)

Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/129243.html.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 19th, 2013 10:08 am (UTC)
Glad you eventually liked it. I'm a Bradbury fan cos he has so MANY tales to tell inside his first reading. I go back again and again to his stuff. And I read it first in the fifties when I was able to. It hurt then, as books were all we had... no google, no tv, very little real travel.... only the mind and imaginations.... no moonlandings even...so MUCH we didn't have then and he spoke for the future in that. A very spare but rich writer. And he sometimes comes out with phrases that burn into the soul. YUMMY.

I wish I could have met him.

Edited at 2013-05-19 10:09 am (UTC)
May. 20th, 2013 06:01 pm (UTC)
I think he wrote some fascinating, powerful stuff. Not sure how I feel about the author himself though; I try to avoid learning things about them in case they turn out to be just not great (Orson Scott Card, Anne Rice, etc).

Yes! I felt that the writing was sometimes unusually 'flowery' (though not in the pejorative sense), but some of the phrases really struck home.
Jun. 1st, 2013 03:12 am (UTC)
Yeah, I think it might be a little overrated, but J thought it was pretty exciting, especially towards the end. His intended message was more about society being too into TV, rather than the dangers of banning books, actually-which just goes to show how much authors can lose ownership after the publish, given the usual interpretation of the book by people!

I think I might agree about the short stories, I liked "The Illustrated Man," even if it is disturbing, lol! (Omg The Veldt!)
Jun. 1st, 2013 03:34 am (UTC)
Yeah, I don't think it's Bradbury's fault--I don't think anything could stand up to that sort of hype. The hype vs actual content is my bone of contention half the time. It's not about books, you book purists!

Yeah, being into TV that is empty headed. Kind of like prioritizing happiness over absolutely everything else.

I read his short stuff first and really liked it, and noticed that 451 is really tiny, actually.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )



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