These highlights are from the Kindle version of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
This is a book of warning. It is a reminder that what we have is valuable, and that sometimes we take what we value for granted.
Bradbury wrote a story called “The Fireman.” The story demanded to be longer. The world he had created demanded more. He went to UCLA’s Powell Library. In the basement were typewriters you could rent by the hour, by putting coins into a box on the side of the typewriter. Ray Bradbury put his money into the box and typed his story. When inspiration flagged, when he needed a boost, when he wanted to stretch his legs, he would walk through the library and look at the books. And then his story was done.
He called the Los Angeles fire department and asked them at what temperature paper burned. Fahrenheit 451, somebody told him. He had his title. It didn’t matter if it was true or not.
Ideas—written ideas—are special. They are the way we transmit our stories and our thoughts from one generation to the next. If we lose them, we lose our shared history. We lose much of what makes us human. And fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.
“Do you ever read any of the books you burn?” He laughed. “That’s against the law!” “Oh. Of course.” “It’s fine work. Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ’em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That’s our official slogan.
He was not happy. He said the words to himself. He recognized this as the true state of affairs. He wore his happiness like a mask and the girl had run off across the lawn with the mask and there was no way of going to knock on her door and ask for it back.
He said hello and then said, “What are you up to now?” “I’m still crazy. The rain feels good. I love to walk in it.” “I don’t think I’d like that,” he said. “You might if you tried.” “I never have.” She licked her lips. “Rain even tastes good.” “What do you do, go around trying everything once?” he asked. “Sometimes twice.
“I’ve tried to imagine,” said Montag, “just how it would feel. I mean, to have firemen burn our houses and our books.” “We haven’t any books.” “But if we did have some.” “You got some?” Beatty blinked slowly. “No.” Montag gazed beyond them to the wall with the typed lists of a million forbidden books. Their names leapt in fire, burning down the years under his axe and his hose which sprayed not water but kerosene.
Established, 1790, to burn English-influenced books in the Colonies. First Fireman: Benjamin Franklin.
RULE 1. Answer the alarm quickly.
2. Start the fire swiftly.
3. Burn everything.
4. Report back to firehouse immediately.
5. Stand alert for other Alarms.
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.
He pressed at the pain in his eyes and suddenly the odor of kerosene made him vomit. Mildred came in, humming. She was surprised. “Why’d you do that?” He looked with dismay at the floor. “We burned an old woman with her books.” “It’s a good thing the rug’s washable.” She fetched a mop and worked on it.
“There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.” “She was simple-minded.” “She was a rational as you and I, more so perhaps, and we burned her.” “That’s water under the bridge.” “No, not water; fire. You ever seen a burned house? It smolders for days. Well, this fire’ll last me the rest of my life.
How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”
“School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”
Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.
We’ve started and won two atomic wars since 2022! Is it because we’re having so much fun at home we’ve forgotten the world? Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are? I’ve heard rumors; the world is starving, but we’re well fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we’re hated so much?
“You’re brave.” “No,” said Montag. “My wife’s dying. A friend of mine’s already dead. Someone who may have been a friend was burnt less than twenty-four hours ago. You’re the only one I knew might help me. To see. To see . . .”
We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren’t happy. Something’s missing. I looked around. The only thing I positively knew was gone was the books I’d burned in ten or twelve years. So I thought books might help.”
Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.
The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.
“So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life.
Number one, as I said, quality of information. Number two: leisure to digest it. And number three: the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.
“That’s the good part of dying; when you’ve nothing to lose, you run any risk you want.”
“Those who don’t build must burn. It’s as old as history and juvenile delinquents.”
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.
They rounded a corner in thunder and siren, with concussion of tires, with scream of rubber, with a shift of kerosene bulk in the glittery brass tank, like the food in the stomach of a giant, with Montag’s fingers jolting off the silver rail, swinging into cold space, with the wind tearing his hair back from his head, with the wind whistling in his teeth, and him all the while thinking of the women, the chaff women in his parlor tonight, with the kernels blown out from under them by a neon wind, and his silly damned reading of a book to them.
“What is there about fire that’s so lovely? No matter what age we are, what draws us to it?” Beatty blew out the flame and lit it again. “It’s perpetual motion; the thing man wanted to invent but never did. Or almost perpetual motion. If you let it go on, it’d burn our lifetimes out. What is fire? It’s a mystery. Scientists give us gobbledegook about friction and molecules. But they don’t really know. Its real beauty is that it destroys responsibility and consequences. A problem gets too burdensome, then into the furnace with it. Now, Montag, you’re a burden. And fire will lift you off my shoulders, clean, quick, sure; nothing to rot later. Antibiotic, aesthetic, practical.”
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.
You must remember, burn them or they’ll burn you, he thought. Right now it’s as simple as that.
“I feel alive for the first time in years,” said Faber. “I feel I’m doing what I should’ve done a lifetime ago. For a little while I’m not afraid. Maybe it’s because I’m doing the right thing at last.
“You know my name,” said Montag. Granger nodded to a portable battery TV set by the fire. “We’ve watched the chase. Figured you’d wind up south along the river.
“They’re faking. You threw them off at the river. They can’t admit it. They know they can hold their audience only so long. The show’s got to have a snap ending, quick! If they started searching the whole damn river it might take all night. So they’re sniffing for a scapegoat to end things with a bang. Watch. They’ll catch Montag in the next five minutes!”
“The search is over, Montag is dead; a crime against society has been avenged.”
“Welcome back from the dead.” Montag nodded. Granger went on. “You might as well know all of us, now. This is Fred Clement, former occupant of the Thomas Hardy chair at Cambridge in the years before it became an Atomic Engineering School. This other is Dr. Simmons from U.C.L.A., a specialist in Ortega y Gasset; Professor West here did quite a bit for ethics, an ancient study now, for Columbia University quite some years ago. Reverend Padover here gave a few lectures thirty years ago and lost his flock between one Sunday and the next for his views. He’s been bumming with us some time now.
Myself: I wrote a book called The Fingers in the Glove; the Proper Relationship between the Individual and Society, and here I am! Welcome, Montag!” “I don’t belong with you,” said Montag, at last, slowly. “I’ve been an idiot all the way.” “We’re used to that. We all made the right kind of mistakes, or we wouldn’t be here. When we were separate individuals, all we had was rage. I struck a fireman when he came to burn my library years ago. I’ve been running ever since.
All of us have photographic memories, but spend a lifetime learning how to block off the things that are really in there. Simmons here has worked on it for twenty years and now we’ve got the method down to where we can recall anything that’s been read once. Would you like, some day, Montag, to read Plato’s Republic?” “Of course!” “I am Plato’s Republic. Like to read Marcus Aurelius? Mr. Simmons is Marcus.”
“I want you to meet Jonathan Swift, the author of that evil political book, Gulliver’s Travels! And this other fellow is Charles Darwin, and this one is Schopenhauer, and this one is Einstein, and this one here at my elbow is Mr. Albert Schweitzer, a very kind philosopher indeed. Here we all are, Montag. Aristophanes and Mahatma Gandhi and Gautama Buddha and Confucius and Thomas Love Peacock and Thomas Jefferson and Mr. Lincoln, if you please. We are also Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”
We’re nothing more than dust jackets for books, of no significance otherwise.
“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.”
Once the bomb release was yanked, it was over. Now, a full three seconds, all of the time in history, before the bombs struck, the enemy ships themselves were gone half around the visible world, like bullets in which a savage islander might not believe because they were invisible; yet the heart is suddenly shattered, the body falls in separate motions and the blood is astonished to be freed on the air; the brain squanders its few precious memories and, puzzled, dies.
We’re remembering. That’s where we’ll win out in the long run. And some day we’ll remember so much that we’ll build the biggest goddam steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in and cover it up. Come on now, we’re going to go build a mirror factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them.”
From a young age he was greatly affected by accounts of the burning of the ancient library at Alexandria and the loss of many classical works that we now know only by title or through fragments of surviving parchment. Bradbury virtually lived in the public libraries of his time, and came to see the shelves as populations of living authors: to burn the book is to burn the author, and to burn the author is to deny our own humanity.
Bradbury was initially inspired by Arthur Koestler’s riveting exposé of Stalin’s political terrors and finally motivated to write by the emerging climate of fear during the early years of the Cold War. His hatred of all totalitarian regimes came into sharp focus in his “Day After Tomorrow” essay, published in The Nation just as he was about to finish the final draft of Fahrenheit 451: Consider the similarity of two books—Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon,” laid in our recent past, and George Orwell’s “1984,” set in our immediate future. And here we are, poised between the two, between a dreadful reality and an unformed terror, trying to make such decisions as will avoid the tyranny of the very far right and the tyranny of the very far left, the two of which can often be seen coalescing into a tyranny pure and simple, with no qualifying adjective in front of it at all.
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.
Three years ago I wrote a short novel entitled “The Fire Man” which told the story of a municipal department in the year 1999 that came to your house to start fires, instead of to put them out. If your neighbors suspected you of reading a mildly subversive book, or any book at all for that matter, they simply turned in an alarm. The hose-bearing sensors then thundered up in their red engines and squirted kerosene on your books, your house, and sometimes on you. Then a match was struck. This short novel was intended as science fiction.
I had done most of my typing in the family garages, either in Venice, California (where we lived because we were poor, not because it was the “in” place to be), or behind the tract house where my wife, Marguerite, and I raised our family. I was driven out of my garage by my loving children, who insisted on coming around to the rear window and singing and tapping on the panes. Father had to choose between finishing a story or playing with the girls. I chose to play, of course, which endangered the family income. An office had to be found. We couldn’t afford one. Finally, I located just the place: the typing room in the basement of the library at the University of California at Los Angeles. There, in neat rows, were a score or more of old Remington or Underwood typewriters which rented out at a dime a half hour. You thrust your dime in, the clock ticked madly, and you typed wildly, to finish before the half hour was out. Thus I was twice driven; by children to leave home, and by a typewriter timing device to be a maniac at the keys.