Fahrenheit 451 is about fire fighters of the future who do not actually fight fires, but seek and destroy books. In this future society where books are illegal, everyone is sedated by mass media on television. But living within the docile crowd of ignorant masses are small pockets of underground, literate intellectuals. Fahrenheit 451 is about a fire fighter protagonist, Guy Montag, joining the literate underground and being awakened to the truth.
Recently I am fascinated by classics like this, 1984 and Brave New World. Each of these describe a dystopian future with many prescient details. Times change, but in so many ways, the struggle remains the same. The individual spirit fighting against the machine designed to crush it.
The postscript of Fahrenheit 451 eloquently describes the contemporary significance of the book:
“Sixty years out, Fahrenheit 451 has come to symbolize the importance of literacy and reading in an increasingly visual culture, offering hope that the wonders of technology and the raptures of multimedia entertainments will never obscure the vital importance of an examined life.”
Modern Day Parallels
Fahrenheit 451 was written over a period of three years, beginning in 1950. At the time televisions were not common yet Ray Bradbury’s vision of the future of media is startlingly prescient. In 2015 we are on the cusp of entering into a new era of immersion, with consumer virtual reality devices like the Oculus Rift coming soon. But even 60 years ago, there were signs that literature was going to be blown away by visual media like movies and television.
One of my favorite literary devices in the book is the mechanical hound: an eight legged autonomous robot designed to hunt and kill fugitives. It is a terrifying symbol of the technological superiority that the ruling class has over would-be rebels like Guy. Its modern equivalent is certainly the drone, quietly patrolling the skies like a mechanical hawk.
Books bombarded his shoulders, his arms, his upturned face. A book lit, almost obediently, like a white pigeon, in his hands, wings fluttering. In the dim, wavering light, a page hung open and it was like a snowy feather, the words delicately painted thereon. In all the rush and fervor, Montag had only an instant to read a line, but it blazed in his mind for the next minute as if stamped there with fiery steel. “Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine.” He dropped the book.
Do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life.
You could feel the war getting ready in the sky that night. The way the clouds moved aside and came back, and the way the stars looked, a million of them swimming between the clouds, like the enemy disks, and the feeling that the sky might fall upon the city and turn it to chalk dust, and the moon go up in red fire; that was how the night felt.
He turned and the Mechanical Hound was there. It was half across the lawn, coming from the shadows, moving with such drifting ease that it was like a single solid cloud of black-gray smoke blown at him in silence.
Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. 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. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.
This book is daring, subversive, and scary. It correctly predicts advances of future media with startling accuracy. The seashell that everyone walks around listening to in the book works exactly like an iPod. Eliminates the outside world allowing listeners to only hear things which validate and comfort their own beliefs. Guy Montag’s wife Mildred is constantly fixated on a television which occupies an entire wall in their house. I have that in my living room.
This book was written to say: this is what the future looks like, if you let it. In my opinion, there was no stopping these developments. As a society we will take the red pill and go further into the rabbit hole of technological immersion, with little resistance. We each have a personal responsibility to acknowledge and cultivate our own individuality by educating ourselves.
One of the touching messages in this book is that literature has “stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment.” This is an inspiring way to think about the texture created by the knowledge and experience captured in literature. It rightly challenges the idea that I have long held that reading literature is not as as worthwhile as non-fiction. The highest degree of human expression is not fueled only by knowledge but by passion and the individual spirit which challenges the status quo and to a degree rejects orthodoxy.
As Guy Montag says: “Burn them or they’ll burn you”