I'm not sure how I made it through high school and college without reading this one...it's one of those books people reference and I think...I should really read that...but not being a huge sci-fi person, it never made it to the top of my list. Then, Daniel read it while we were at the beach last week. He finished it, and it was just laying there waiting for me to pick it up.
Honesly, getting through it was hard work. I didn't really enjoy it while I was reading it. It felt so sparse and cold. It was hard for me to find my place in Bradbury's world. I had so many questions...which I bombarded Daniel with constantly. But I love it now...I love it more each day. I guess I needed to sit with it a while and think it through.
It was hard for me in part because I had some preconceived notions going in...I was expecting something more Orwellian...the government policing what people read and say and do. I thought "they" would be the ones banning and burning books, trying to keep people pacified and powerless. As it turns out, in Bradbury's futuristic society, the censorship started with the people. Captain Beatty explains, "It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick..." It seems the people originally began to censor books because they wanted to keep the peace...they didn't want anyone to be upset by anything. They whittled away at books...a line here...a paragraph there...then entire pages and sections...Captain Beatty goes on: "Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book..." Eventually, there was nothing of substance left.
That, plus industrialization and incredible advances in technology, led to this fast-paced, pleasure-seeking, instant gratification society where everyone is conveniently tuned out. The country is on the verge of war, and no one cares.
The characters, most notably Mildred, have a brainwashed feel...like their minds have been turned to mush...but really there's no one to blame. There's no Big Brother. Just a gradual, collective checking out. People in Bradbury's world no longer read, think, discuss, create, savor, or reflect.
Which brings me to my second misconception...Despite the title, it's not really a book about censorship and burning books. Initially Montag, the protagonist, thinks books are the answer. If society stopped burning books, if people started reading books again, they could unlock the secret to happiness...uncover the solution to all their problems. The world would be saved. Then he meets the professor who tells him, "It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books...Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of the things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us."
The professor goes on to name three things that are missing from this society: 1. Quality of information 2. Leisure to digest it 3. The right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two...and that idea of taking action is reinforced by Granger at the end of the book. Granger, one of the Book People, says, "Everyone must leave something behind when he dies...a child or a book or a painting or house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted...It doesn't matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you once you take your hands away." So lovely! And, it seems to me, that is the crux of Fahrenheit 451.
It's a cautionary tale...warning us of the dangers of becoming spectators. Perhaps even more relevant now than it was in 1953.