I’ve mentioned in the past how I tend to choose books. If they ring a bell, like Montaigne’s essays, then I assume they’re good books since no one hears about bad books or products in general. This was the case with Fahrenheit 451. I’ve heard of it so many times in the past that it was registered as one of those “must read” books, even though I had not the slightest idea of what it was about.
The story behind Fahrenheit 451 is not uncommon. Ray Bradbury, the author, had imagined parts of this world a few times, publishing short stories within it long before writing the masterpiece Fahrenheit would become. These ideas he had, these inklings, slowly became the book so many people love.
And what a book it is! Short, concise, to the point, yet full of wisdom and beautiful quotes, some of which you will find throughout this article.
Bradbury shows you whole society from the viewpoint of one of its cornerstones: a fireman. Firemen in this society are literal 🔥 firemen🔥. They create fires; they light up houses containing one of society’s most dreaded and dangerous enemies: books.
“Those who don’t build must burn.”
Guy Montag is a good fireman. He loves his job, because who wouldn’t love turning pretty little houses into bonfires? He’s an ordinary citizen, with a short-attention-span wife, living an ordinary life. Until he meets this little girl, that is… Well… Alive. This little girl shows Montag that there’s more to life than simply staring at screens and being constantly bombarded by information, media, and entertainment. The little girl becomes his friend by her sheer power of being truly alive and curious in a world full of flashy lights and little meaning.
‘We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at least one which makes the heart run over.’
The genius of Bradbury is the way he chose how to simplify a really complex world into a single idea: books are prohibited and bad for society, they must be burnt and anyone willing to read one is considered to be insane.
Ideas — written ideas — are special. They are the way we transmit our stories and our thoughts from one generation to the next. If we lose them, we lose our shared history. We lose much of what makes us human. And fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.
Montag slowly turns rebel. He’s been stealing books for a long time now, not knowing why. As Montag finally goes wild and decides to try and topple the whole government, he realizes that prohibiting books is not really how the people are being controlled.
No one actually wants to read books! They’re thought of as useless, boring and dangerous. Dangerous because they will make your mind sick, not because they will enlighten you. Books were magical, not because they were books, but because of what they stored within, and now no one cares, even worse, they dread to find the hidden treasures stored in books.
It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. (…) 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. Of course you couldn’t know this, of course you still can’t understand what I mean when I say all this.
Montag eventually meets an old professor, one of many scholars that are now in hiding. He mentions how he’s terrified for his life and how ashamed he is that none of them voiced their concerns when society started turning sour. They should have fought! They were the guardians of knowledge, common sense and humanity, yet they remained silent in order to guard their own lives.
Now they find themselves in a world full of reckless teenagers, computerized “families”, and personalized advertisement that makes you feel special, even though it’s the same for everyone.
The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest: ‘What nonsense!’ ”
Nowhere in the book does Bradbury shows any light, the world isn’t going to change. Guy Montag it’s just one more rebel that won’t be able to change a thing, not because he can’t, but because no one really wants to change. People are happy being unhappy. Suicides are rampant, yet no one would admit unhappiness amits a sea of gorgeous celebrities, happy pills and endless entertainment.
People have forgotten what the real world looked like. Bringing back books would change nothing.
The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.’
The book, as you might have noticed, is chock-full of gorgeous, eye-opening, philosophical quotes. So much wisdom seems to be wrapped together in this little bundle of sci-fi.
I’ve read more sci-fi books than in any other genre. It is by far my favourite, and some of the best books I’ve ever read, and I believe have ever been written, are sci-fi. What I love about sci-fi books is that they’re a receptacle of the author’s wisdom. The genre allows authors to manipulate reality enough to show up what we could become, without distorting it so much as to make us not care.
‘A dwarf on a giant’s shoulders sees the furthest of the two!’
Every author wants to pour their life-gathered wisdom into their books, and I feel sci-fi has a unique ability to depict human nature in it’s most raw form; by exaggerating a specific subject, authors can show us what could go wrong if we take the wrong steps as a society, or how we could reach utopia with the right ones.
A lot of what I believe comes not from books, but from the best ideas and wisdom the book author could put into words. Take this wonderfully gorgeous quote (highlights mine):
“When I was a boy my grandfather died, and he was a sculptor. He was also a very kind man who had a lot of love to give the world, and he helped clean up the slum in our town; and he made toys for us and he did a million things in his lifetime; he was always busy with his hands. And when he died, I suddenly realized I wasn’t crying for him at all, but for all the things he did. I cried because he would never do them again, he would never carve another piece of wood or help us raise doves and pigeons in the back yard or play the violin the way he did, or tell us jokes the way he did. He was part of us and when he died, all the actions stopped dead and there was no one to do them just the way he did. He was individual. He was an important man. I’ve never gotten over his death. Often I think, what wonderful carvings never came to birth because he died. How many jokes are missing from the world, and how many homing pigeons untouched by his hands. He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on.”
Fahrenheit 451 is not a book about a dystopian society or about a man realizing how unhappy he is and how crazy the whole world has become, it is a warning of what we could become, of the dangers of forgetting what’s truly important and being confused by flashing lights and endless chatter.
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
We should all leave something behind. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. It’s about the small things, it’s about the important things.
It’s about how we make the world better.