-Reviw by Paul Ewbank-
Fahrenheit 451 is a book about how books are the most important thing in the universe. It’s also about how TV and instant gratification culture are destroying your soul. Despite sounding like it was written by your old Sunday School teacher (you all went to Sunday School, right?), it’s actually very good; an exceptionally well imagined picture of a dystopian future that has an awful lot in common with life as we know it. If it were just a little bit self righteous I would rank it alongside the very best of the genre.
Speaking of the best in the genre, the basic premise of Fahrenheit 451 has a lot in common with that of Nineteen Eighty Four. Both star a lone man disillusioned with life in their respective dystopias, wracked by fear and paranoia that they will be discovered and wanting to do something about it all but being too afraid and overwhelmed to do more than quietly rebel in their minds. Guy Montag works as a fireman, whose job is to hunt down and burn any houses suspected of harbouring books (a similar kind of past-erasing job to Winston Smith’s, now that I think about it), which are strictly forbidden for containing knowledge, which leads to all unhappiness. The people of 451 waste their lives away following meaningless diversions and being bombarded by nonsensical, sense assaulting programs on their floor to ceiling TV screens. Montag’s own wife, like most of the population, spends her entire waking existence plugged into some form of mass media or other, seeming far more connected to her make believe ‘family’ on TV than to her own husband. It’s not a subtle reflection of what Ray Bradbury presumably sees as the evils of television and its destructive effect on human relationships, but it’s hard to argue with him. And heck, this was written sixty years ago- look how much closer things are to his imagined nightmare now than when he wrote it! All good dystopian fiction contains a good chunk of reality, but Fahrenheit 451 is probably already coming true for a lot of people.
The book burning concept has obvious historical precedent, lending further credibility to the warnings of Fahrenheit 451. And the genius of the book is that no law was ever passed to outlaw books and learning; people just stopped, favouring the power to you, give-me-the-thrills-NOW mentality of TV and technology to those archaic things with the words and the pages. So given that in many ways Bradbury was bang-on with his predictions (ok, we’re not at book-burning being a respectable profession just yet, but TV and media are heading towards Bradbury’s vision a lot faster than he probably would’ve predicted), why does Fahrenheit 451 seem so fantastical and out of touch with reality? Partly it’s the writing style. Bradbury’s prose is incredibly ornate, littered with extended metaphor and deliberate, flowery descriptions. This hyperbolic tone gives voice to Guy Montag’s habit of catastrophising everything around him as in his paranoid mind the sound of a jet plane overhead or the smell of grass and hay become momentous, world-encompassing events. The thick, flowing prose can halt momentum at times but is undeniably beautiful and evocative. It also helps distinguish Fahrenheit 451 from other dystopian visions and gives it a voice entirely its own. Where reading 1984 was the literary equivalent of being tied to a chair with a blinding light in your eye and having every reason you suck as a person calmly, methodically explained to you by men in white coats, Fahrenheit 451 reads like an impressionist painting of your shortcomings- hazy on detail but powerfully evocative in overall effect.
Though a comparatively short read, Fahrenheit has time to throw in more than a few surprising changes in direction and more than enough to make its points about censorship, conformity and the hollow, zero attention span nature of modern society. The simplistic conclusion that books are the sole solution to all of society’s ills is a little annoying, but is probably reflective of Bradbury’s fears that his medium was fast becoming outdated in 1950’s America. Given that in a recently aired episode of Pointless it was revealed that the British public has better knowledge of Spice Girls singles than Shakespeare plays, it’s a concern that still rings true.