Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 4, 2011

 Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? – Beatty to Montag in Fahrenheit 451

There are many writers whom I relegate to an informal category titled “need to tackle in the future” the first time I encounter them. Once shoved into this category they are certain to enter a near permanent state of forgetfulness. Although rare, some do resist to fight back and pop into active consciousness with a dogged tenacity. Through a reference here, a hint there, an unexpected insinuation and accidental coming across they keep themselves alive and prompt me to read them. Ray Bradbury is one among these writers.

Three diverse occurrences and hints prove the point I am referring to above: One:  I had read an interview by Ian McEwan recently in which he mentioned Malcolm Bradbury as the writer who conducted courses in creative writing in East Anglia University which had him as a student. McEwan had a reverential tone when he spoke of Bradbury. It turned out later that I was confusing Malcolm Bradbury with Ray Bradbury. However, both Bradburys remained in my mind.  This was the first prompt. Two:  I accidentally landed with a hardbound edition of his collected short stories containing a 100 of his best stories at a price which was next to nothing. The shop owner; a great lover of books herself was willing to give it away for free urging me to read the stories without fail. Her parting words to me were “You are taking home a joy that is invaluable”. This was a second sign. I am yet to read the stories though. Three: After many lazy starts and failed attempts in getting a book club going, I decided to adopt “if you can’t fight then float” approach and was looking for a good book club to join as an active member. I found the online book club initiated by Sam Jordison of Guardian newspaper suitable for my purposes. And to my surprise Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was nominated as the inaugural choice for members to read and comment. This was not only the third prompt and sign but a definitive tipping point. So here I am, with my impressions of this mildly terrifying, wonderfully poignant but in the end a vastly hopeful and heartwarming book about the centrality of books and literature in our lives and how a few among us will always stand up for the right things despite the personal difficulties and sacrifices they entail

Fahrenheit 451 is set in a dystopian world where censorship is rampant, TV has become an ultra-dominant media, majority of the common people have already lost interest in books and literature and the authorities direct their fire service forces to burn down books and homes of people who cherish, store and protect books. In this world lives Guy Montag a regular fire service man with his wife Melissa. Guy is both a perpetrator of the atrocities and an eventual rebel against the regime. His dormant sensibilities are awakened by an incident where an old woman is charred to death trying to protect her burning books and house and his chance meeting with Clarisse – a young girl who rekindles his interest in life, sensitizes him to the state of society and in a tangential way reinforces in him the importance of books and their relevance to human societies. Guy rebels against the system only to find his house made the target by fire service force led by his colleagues and boss Beatty. In his quest for redemption, Guy is guided by a retired professor Faber to whom Guy hands over his savings with the understanding that Faber would initiate printing of books for wider dissemination at a suitable time in future. As part of his escape to safety from persecution of authorities, Guy leaves his city and joins a bunch of renegades who carry books in their heads with the hope that one day they will be able to put them on paper once again and make them available to future generations

The appeal of Fahrenheit 451 lies in multiple aspects and foremost among them is the balanced view that Bradbury brings around the relevance of books to society. He refrains from the facile conclusion that books and literature are ultimate panacea for the ills of our society and their creation and existence automatically guarantees a safety mechanism which prevents mankind from making the mistakes it does. Bradbury believes that at best the intensity and magnitude of the follies may remain in check. Bradbury makes his characters bring forth this balanced view point at various points in time in the book. Here are a few worth considering

Montag: We’ve started and won two atomic wars since 1990! Is it because we have so much fun at home that 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? I’ve heard rumors about hate, too, once in a long while over the years. Do you know why? I don’t, that’s sure! Maybe the books can get us half out of the cave. They might just stop us from making those same damn mistakes!….. God, Millie don’t you see? An hour a day, two hours, with these books, and maybe.….

Faber: You can’t guarantee things like that! After all, when we had all the books we needed, we still insisted on the highest cliff to jump off. But we do need a breather. We do need knowledge. And perhaps in a thousand years we might pick of smaller cliffs to jump off. The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are, They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal”

Granger: There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we are doing the same thing, over and over, but we have got one damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly think we just did. We know all the damn silly things we have done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them.

These views are singular and the central message of Fahrenheit 451. Yet Bradbury does not make his views uni-dimensional. He makes this amply clear when he makes Faber advise Montag as follows:

“Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore”

Bradbury paints a picture of a dystopian society which is not only prescient but not far off from current day reality. Aspects related to the aggressive industrialization, accelerating proliferation of technologies, periodic war mongering, over bearing presence of media in manufacturing opinions, viewpoints and the power to dumb people down, the alienation of individuals from society, censorship, the penchant for political correctness and the clamour of people for bread and circuses, fun and titillation are portrayed so well that looking at our current day society (especially US and other western nations) one cannot but marvel at Bradbury’s foresight as a writer. On this front, I felt Bradbury scores over even a great writer like George Orwell

Probably the greatest aspect of Fahrenheit 451 is that while being a novel of caution and chastisement it is also simultaneously a wonderfully optimistic book and leaves the reader with a sense of wisdom and awareness of his own duties and responsibilities towards inculcating the habit of reading in people who surround him and in propagating a practical view around the relevance of books to society at large

In judging writers and books Bradbury provides a wonderful yardstick to readers through the words of Faber when he says

“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”

In judging Fahrenheit 451, this same yardstick comes in handy and one can conclude confidently that it is not only a great book but also that Ray Bradbury is a good writer


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