Fahrenheit 451 is a novel written in 1953 by one of the most well-regarded speculative fiction authors of the past 100 years, Ray Bradbury. He was the author of hundreds of novels, novellas and short stories covering a huge range of subjects. He almost seemed to be trying to create so much writing within his lifetime that he could’ve kept pace with the destruction of books in this, one of his most classic pieces, of a future world where books are banned, everything comes to the people through attention grabbing screens, and any knowledge of the past is irrelevant compared to the encouragement to simply have fun, not worry, and not think.
One of the more realistic futures
A common flaw of many of the older dystopian novels is predicting a future that turns out to be sufficiently unlikely, so that they don’t age very well as cautionary tales. Conversely, Fahrenheit 451 remains topical today. We already live in a world where the physical book is beginning a slow decline. Everything is becoming electronic, breaking things into smaller and smaller bites. Anybody watching children’s television today will see the parallels to the screens in the Montag household, blasting short little bursts of activity, wrecking the attention span, making it harder and harder to say anything worthwhile.
Socially, similar things are happening. In the age of memes, of Twitter and Facebook updates, we start to say more and more about less and less until the world is awash in a sea of nonsense. Nobody sits around and talks any more. They sit around and chat with each other on their smartphones. We may think this is bringing the world closer together, this ability to communicate in real time to people all over the world, but it’s also making our interactions more shallow, the consequence facing Montag as well. Nobody has time for anything meaningful anymore.
Bradbury does an excellent job in so few pages with communicating the level of unease this can engender. Realizing what you’re missing and finding nobody around you willing to engage with you is a dark feeling, and he really puts you in those shoes. When Montag tries reading poetry to his wife’s friends and one is left in tears and simply cannot comprehend why, it really drives home that it’s not even about being moved in spite of herself–it’s about being confused and afraid that these words are supposed to have meaning, but her ability to comprehend that meaning has eroded away until only the pap coming through the walls can penetrate.
But it’s not an inevitable fate
While the general themes of Fahrenheit 451 remain a potential danger for our society as technology pushes us more and more into quick and short exchanges, carrying less and less meaning, that same technology is going to be one of the primary ways this fate can be prevented. While it encourages shouting every stray thought no matter how meaningless from the rooftops of the Twittersphere, the internet’s function as a repository of knowledge also helps insulate us from the ability of totalitarian regimes to suppress knowledge.
With things like Project Gutenberg and the fact that the internet doesn’t really exist in a physical place where it can be destroyed or removed, more and more of our collective knowledge is being moved into a medium where it has a life that far outstrips the ability of war or oppression to destroy. It would take the kind of catastrophe that puts us more in line with 1984 to bring about. And that would bring its own separate set of problems.
Why should you read this book?
Aside from the obvious answer that Fahrenheit 451 is unarguably a classic of speculative fiction that everybody should read simply for a good sense of the history of SFF, this is a great book. The story is excellently paced, fascinating, and ages very well in a way a lot of 50+ year old SFF doesn’t. It stays topical to today’s world and has a lot to say about societal development and the advance of technology.
Most importantly though, the reason you should read this book is spelled out in the book itself: the truth is that the Firemen weren’t the driving force for the destruction of books, it was the people themselves. They stopped reading, stopped caring about the kinds of things books can tell them. Fighting against that drive, as hard as we can, is reason enough.