The title of Bradbury’s book refers to the temperature at which paper burns. The story however is less about the physical burning of books than the subtle hatred of humanity that underlies it, a hatred implicit perhaps in the very nature of totalitarianism – no matter how well meaning. It is expressed not in anything so crude as actual feeling, but rather in the need to anaesthetise it, to cut human beings off from each other and from any activity that might in all innocence put them in touch – replacing actual contact with a simulated equivalent. The humanity that emerges from this appears to display the full range of human feeling; the appearance however is as thin and brittle as the ageing paper of the books that stand in silent judgement of it.
In his introduction to the fiftieth anniversary edition of ‘Fahrenheit 451′ Bradbury tells how the novel had its genesis in the moment a spotlight was unexpectedly thrown on one particular innocent activity. He was out walking one evening with a friend in Los Angeles when a police car pulled up and the officer asked what they were doing – when walking was their aim and talking what occupied them.
This gave rise to a short story entitled ‘The Pedestrian’ about a future society in which pedestrians were arrested for using sidewalks. And it was when subsequently out ‘walking’ with this fictional character that – whether fictionally or not – he bumped into Clarisse McClellan, the young girl whose innocent but probing questions were the starting point of the novel. Thus the Pedestrian metamorphosed into Guy Montagu, the fireman, the burner of books, who is prompted by this chance encounter to question the real nature of what he is doing.
As a result he gradually becomes aware that the real danger perceived in books is less to do with their role as mere receptacles of information than in their capacity to remind us of the depth, ambiguity and sheer intractability of human experience – its resistance, in short, to any attempt to reduce it to a formula.
“It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that were once in books”, says Faber, an old man with a clear memory of the past who makes a brief appearance in the story. “Books”, he continues, were but “one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget.”
Faber goes on to describe a good book, the one he happens to be holding in his hand being the Bible, in terms of “texture” – a glimpse of life as put under the microscope. “So now”, he asks, “do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless. We are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of good rain and black loam.”
As Beatty, the Fire Chief, points out to Montagu however, for anyone seeking answers, the sheer futility of books is manifest in the fact that there is no consistency to be found in them; one will invariably contradict another. They are the source not of understanding, but only of misunderstanding, confusion and despair. By contrast the wall-to-wall flat screen TV’s and the ear pieces by which people stay constantly ‘connected’ provide a reassuring input; thoughts, feelings, opinions reduced to a passing effervescence, ensuring no-one ever need get upset about anything – nor stop to consider whether, beyond the clean shiny surfaces, there might be anything at all worth reflecting on.
First published in 1953 and frequently misclassified as science fiction, the novel belongs in truth to the same genre and era as those two better known dystopias, Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ and Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. Like these two books it identifies the fatal weakness of totalitarianism not in political terms but rather in its failure to encompass the human. Bradbury, writing in the midst of the McCarthy era, conveys this lesson no less vividly than his two older and better known contemporaries. His special gift however is to bring this into focus in relation to one particular human activity, namely reading, and to explore implicitly just why this is important and what life might be like without it – or, more precisely, without the kind of awareness implied by it.
Without giving anything away it suffices to say that the ending of the novel brings us in a sense full circle. What was once entrusted to pen and paper to ensure its survival is made to depend once more on actual flesh and blood contact.