Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I first read this when I was about fourteen, after an aunt recommended it to me. I’m not sure what prompted her to wave it in front of a teenager with no experience of censorship, totalitarianism or the concept of dystopia but I’m glad she did as I loved it even then. It’s not a particularly difficult book to get on with, but I appreciated the darkness of it quite as much the first time round.

The system was simple. Everyone understood it. Books were for burning, along with the houses in which they were hidden.

Guy Montag was a fireman whose job it was to start fires. And he enjoyed his job. He had been a fireman for ten years, and he had never questioned the pleasure of the midnight runs or the joy of watching pages consumed by flames, never questioned anything until he met a seventeen-year-old girl who told him of a past when people were not afraid. Then Guy met a professor who told him of a future in which people could think. And Guy Montag suddenly realized what he had to do…

I loved this book primarily due to the depth of the world Ray Bradbury has created. I need my dystopian novels to have a logical reason behind why society changed with details provided to make it believable – not so much to ask, but it happens less frequently than you’d think. Here, books have been prohibited to promote equality. In a world where television takes up four walls of every lounge and driving recklessly is encouraged, those few people that actually read were shunned and feared because of their intelligence. Therefore, to bring those few down to the level of the less-educated, books (and the houses that contained them) are burned by the firemen. Society has degraded to the extent where civilians can’t even understand why they would want to read books – they’ve been brainwashed to believe that ‘the family’ on television are all they need. What can they possibly contain that they don’t already have? The protagonist is happily ignorant until he meets a girl on the street who takes the time to smell the grass and look at the stars. Eventually Guy realises that perhaps she’s learnt her peculiar way of thinking from books and wonders what other secrets they might contain. It’s wonderful; easily one of the best sci-fi worlds ever created although I never, ever want to visit.
Guy’s character is fairly standard, but his thought processes are so detailed that you feel as though you’re slowly coming to the same revelations that he does. He doesn’t magically change his entire outlook – it’s a drawn-out process, prompted by understandable events. I particularly liked his conversations with his wife – Millie has time only for the people on the three walls of their television and fervently demands Guy return to his unquestioning obediance. She’s shrill, unlikeable and irritatingly naive but she’s necessary for the contrast to what her husband has become.
It’s a very dark little novella. Very dark indeed. It was first published in 1954, but it seems to be massively ahead of its time. Hasn’t everybody wondered what all those reality TV shows, gimmicky adverts and the downfall of books are doing to society? I admit to being slightly spooked by the parallels. Obviously the issue of censorship is prevalent here, but it’s the lengths that the firemen will go to prevent the spread of prohibited literature that’s really disturbing.
Plot-wise, it’s fast paced and very character driven. I’m not over-fond of the ending because it seems to fizzle out a little but I’m not really sure how I would have changed it for the better. It’s a very short book, so I suppose providing an ending I’d have preferred would have made it an awful lot longer.
I really can’t recommend Fahrenheit 451 enough. I have the 50th anniversary edition (which was eight years ago – God I feel old) so it has a lengthy introduction written by Mr. Bradbury himself. I don’t usually read them but this one is excellent. He talks about combining lots of different stories into one novella on rentable typewriters in the basement of his library, and what inspired separate parts of the book. Buy this book. Buy this edition especially!

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