Continuing my series of gloomy and dystopian posts, today’s entry features Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Fahrenheit was an arresting read for me, not only because of the book theme, or Bradbury’s engaging prose, or the touching characterization of the protagonist, the “fireman” (i.e. book burner) Guy Montag, but also because I was expecting something quite different from a novel that up to now I had categorised as the third installment of the classic dystopian trilogy beginning with Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984.
Having recently watched a BBC adaptation of Huxley’s Brave New World, crammed with soma-induced pyjama wearing alphas to gammas, assembly lines for breeding, brainwashing jingles, hypno-cinemas, and all the other various gadgets, I was expecting Bradbury to do exactly the same, namely to spend a good deal of time elaborating on his dystopian society and create a world full of symbol-laden contraptions and quirky social routines burdened with moral dilemmas. Fahrenheit does that, too, but merely in passing, and uses it not as an end in itself, but as a backdrop for portraying the growing conflict facing the book’s main character, Guy Montag.
The central premise of Fahrenheit, as most of you will know, is that a future society has institutionalized the burning of books (451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns). Books have become forbidden objects, and although some renegade readers still hide them in their attics, living in constant fear of the fire department showing up at their doorstep, most citizens regard printed matter with fear, suspicion or unsavory ridicule. A handful of readers have gone into hiding in the forests at the outskirts of the city, and have taken it upon themselves to save the legacy of the great books by memorizing them before they are being obliterated — a “living memory” in every sense of the word:
We’re nothing more than dust-jackets for books, of no significance otherwise. Some of us live in small towns. Chapter One of Thoreau’s Walden in Green River, Chapter Two in Willow Farm, Maine. Why, there’s one town in Maryland, only twenty-seven people, no bomb’ll ever touch that town, is the complete essays of a man named Bertrand Russell. […] And when the war’s over, some day, some year, the books can be written again, and the people will be called in, one by one, to recall what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damned thing over again.
Bradbury’s decision to centre his dystopia around books must have come naturally to him. Born into a publisher family, he was also a bibliophile. I remember watching an Bradbury interview where he describes his first encounter with books, instantly becoming obsessed with their smell, and when you read Fahrenheit you will soon realise that his writing is very olfactory indeed. Of course it is not books as things that matter to the story, but their capacity to contain thoughts and ideas: books are the memory of humankind, and Bradbury captures the sense of memory loss of a bookless society poignantly in a childhood episode of the novel’s protagonist. While Montag is sitting in the subway, a stolen Bible clasped to his body, trying desperately to remember a line from the sermon of the mount, failing as the train speakers shout their ads at the passengers, he remembers the following scene:
Once as a child he had sat upon a yellow dune by the sea in the middle of the blue and hot summer day, trying to fill a sieve with sand, because some cruel cousin had said, “Fill this sieve and you’ll get a dime!” And the faster he poured, the faster it sifted through with a hot whispering. His hands were tired, the sand was boiling, the sieve was empty. Seated there in the midst of July, without a sound, he felt the tears move down his cheeks.
Bradbury’s dystopian world is filled with noise — soap operas, the roaring fighter jet, colour walls, dentistry commercials; and the noise makes it impossible for Montag to hang on even to a single line from what he is reading. In Bradbury’s future, the inability to hold on to what you have read, and the thoughts and ideas you encounter and perchance the new ideas you create, has eradicated people’s sense of being individuals, and at the same time made it impossible for them to engage meaningfully with the history of human thought, or even with their present surroundings and other human beings.
Fahrenheit was written in 1953. Ten years after publication, Bradbury described a scene he had just witnessed on the street, of a woman walking next to her husband:
The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera-cries, sleep-walking, helped up and down kerbs by a husband who might just as well have not been there. This was not fiction.
I can only surmise what Bradbury has been thinking and feeling for the last couple of decades, but I imagine it must be a rather daunting and unsettling experience as a dystopian writer to witness your vision of the future manifesting itself in the present and realising you might have been all too right in your predictions. We might still keep a lot books around (more than ever, in fact) and most of us, hopefully, consider the burning of books a sacrilege; but as far as the memory of books is concerned, I for one am haunted by the fear of losing the ability to hold on to what I have read, and on a larger social scale this might be as dangerous as losing the books themselves.