Fahrenheit 451

In my ongoing attempts to catch up on the classics — and, specifically, the numbered books — I’ve come to the conclusion that I end up liking post-apocalyptic books. War stories. Intense situations. So ol’ Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 seemed like it was primed for my liking. Except… it wasn’t.

I mostly hated this book so, so much. And I wanted to like it, because the setting Bradbury created was starkly fascinating. In his mind, the end of the world as we knew it would mean ubiquitous censorship, and the government would do everything in its power to rid the world of literary memories — including re-appropriating firemen as book-burners. But the problem is that the narrator, perhaps, took on this burden. And so the descriptions, while occasionally vivid, are mostly scattered, childish and inconsistent. Bradbury himself made the claim in the afterword that he’s a “passionate, not an intellectual writer” (p. 223), but I still can’t forgive him for not being able to reign in his whimsy and hire a good editor. The book feels like a semi-self-indulgent first draft, rife with nonsensical descriptions and unrealistic dialogue. Rich descriptions and empty dialogue would have made more sense, given what he was trying to accomplish.

Here’s one of those nonsensical descriptions that made me cringe: “He stared at the parlour that was dead and grey as the waters of an ocean that might teem with life if they switched on the electronic sun” (p. 95). Here’s a bit of repetitive action text that also made me cringe: “He ran steadily for six blocks, in the alley, and then the alley opened out on to a wide empty thoroughfare ten lanes wide” (p. 160). And here’s some dialogue (p. 33) that… well, you get the idea.

‘I’ve got to be going, so say you forgive me. I don’t want you angry with me.’
‘I’m not angry. Upset, yes.’
‘I’ve got to go see my psychiatrist now. They make me go. I made up things to say. I don’t know what he thinks of me. He says I’m a regular onion. I keep him busy peeling away the layers.’

No one talks like this! Of course, it doesn’t help that he created a ton of characters with no distinct personalities. Again, this may have been an attempt to display that his post-apocalyptic world had sucked all the personality and culture out of everyone, but there’s nothing left but a shell in any of them, giving us nothing to hook into. That dialogue above is an exchange between the main character, Montag (a fireman who, according to p. 11, moved through the world “thinking little at all about nothing in particular”) and Clarisse, some random Manic Pixie Dream Girl teenager he befriended for reasons I don’t understand.

Another bothersome element is the completely non-threatening, abstract threat that looms over the book. It’s only sort of made clear by the end, and even then, I wasn’t scared for Montag. Since he was the only obvious sane person throughout, it was abundantly obvious that he’d find a way out of the hell he’d been placed in. Only after a drawn-out chase, in which an impossible-to-picture mechanical beast searches for an on-the-lam Montag — the rebel fireman who wants to save books! — do we get to the good stuff.

And that good stuff is, of course, Montag meeting up with some fellow rebels. These guys are far more interesting and logical and vibrant than anyone else in the book. They’ve taken to each putting a famous tome to memory, so that the world’s library can live on in the world’s collective minds, which is an absolutely beautiful sentiment: “Pick up that town, almost, and flip the pages, so many pages to a person” (p. 196). As they introduce themselves as books, rather than humans, to Montag, it’s easy to see why censorship is so terrifying. More terrifying than that mechanical beast, anyway.

Most of my favorite quotes come from the last 30 pages. When Montag comes upon the rebels, for example, and sees them standing around a bonfire, “He hadn’t known fire could look this way. He had never thought in his life that it could give as well as take” (p. 187). Pardon me while I shiver. And Granger, one of the cool rebel bros, slides in this gem: “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” (p. 200).

Here’s the standout, though, from p. 107, when Montag is talking to Faber, a professor who ends up helping him connect with the rebels. Faber says: “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.”

So, there’s beauty in this book about how there’s beauty in books. It’s just (sorry in advance) buried in a whole lot of ash.