Retro Book Reviews: Fahrenheit 451

Paper burns at 451 Fahrenheit, or so the legend goes… Regarded by many of Ray Bradbury’s finest work Fahrenheit 451 remains as prescient today as it was when it was first written back in 1960. It sits within the cannon of Dystopian classics like ‘Brave New World‘, ‘We‘ and ‘1984‘ as both a terrifying vision of the future and a warning to the present. But unlike the other three, I have just mentioned, ‘Fahrenheit 451’  has a surprisingly positive message about the human spirit. In rereading it with a view to this blog, (and because it has always been among my favourite novels), I was struck, as ever, by this one passage.

“Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. see the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that. Shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.”

― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

As a guide to living your life, you can’t go far wrong with those words. Though more aspire to them than ever succeeded in following them I am sure, myself included. If it seems a message out of place in a dystopian novel, that’s because it would in any other, but ‘Fahrenheit 451‘ is a strange fish in many regards. It is also more prescient than it’s bedfellows from Orwell and Huxley.  Fahrenheit world is one where the intellectual is held in low regard.

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If you have read other ‘retro’ book reviews I have done, you will be aware I try to treat them as freshly published novels, to see how they stack up against their modern counterparts. If Bradbury was releasing this today there would need to be very little, if anything, changed within the text. The future the novel envisioned is one that we are only closer to living than we were in 1953 when the novel was first released. It was always a novel of the near future, it was just a near future that little bit further away than Bradbury foresaw. A glance at US politics and the prevailing ethos of the nation is all it takes to see the parallels between the world as it is, and the world of ‘Fahrenheit 451‘. The intellectual, the scientist, the economist, the academic, in general, is increasingly disparaged. Science as a whole has become a thing to denigrate. Just look at the rhetoric on climate change, or the way in which science budgets are being cut, or the way the Liberal ‘elite’ were portrayed as remote ‘intelligentsia’ in the last US election, castigated not just by the right but by large portions of the traditional left as the shift to popularism held sway. Intellectual has become a dirty word in political circles. All of which have echoes in ‘Fahrenheit‘ world of firemen and book burnings.

The rise of social media and screen life has become ever more prevalent. We may not sit in a single media room in our houses, surrounded on all sides by screens that push the latest soap opera upon us as Guy’s wife Mildred does in ‘Fahrenheit’. Instead, we carry our screens with us everywhere, engaging in the banal, and contributing to it. Pictures of our food, selfies, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, flood our collective minds. We are all constantly connected to the outpourings of the global zeitgeist of popular culture while becoming ever more disconnected from our neighbours and relationships beyond the screen. Anti-depressants are handed out like candy, meditation of the mind, by popular prescription. Another echo from within the novel as Mildred takes happy pills when ever a conversation gets her down. We may not have firemen to burn our books but to quote Bradbury once more…

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And, that we have, in. many ways, there has been a steady, but an increasing decline in the reading of books over the last several decades. As this article in the Atlantic explains.

Bradbury’s vision is as much a vision of a near future now as it was then. It speaks the same warnings it ever did. Warnings of the death of the intellectual liberalism, and its replacement with a populist autocracy. The context may be different, but the parallels with the current political climate are there all the same. Indeed there are so many echoes it is at times hard to believe this is a novel from the fifties, not one that has slipped off the word processor in the last year or so.

Yet as I said when I began, the message of ‘Fahrenheit 451‘  is surprisingly uplifting for a dystopia. Unlike ‘1984’ for example, the protagonist does not end up accepting the status quo, just another cog in the machine ground down by the system. Instead, it ends with Guy joining the strange resistance group who have set themselves the task of saving books by memorising them. It’s a message that says, ‘We will not be beaten, we know this day will pass and a new day will come,’ Which is perhaps a message to us all when we look on despairingly at the current state of the world.

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