26 February 2012

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Published in 1953
First published in Galaxy Science Fiction
RETRO Hugo Awarded in 2004
175 pages
My first re-read!

Rule 1.  Answer the alarm swiftly.
         2. Start the fire swiftly.
         3. Burn everything.
         4. Stand alert for other alarms.
Page 35

Does everyone know the plot of Fahrenheit 451?  I think so.  Firefighters no longer put fires out, but start them.  Books have been outlawed so they burn books, and the houses they’re in.  One firefighter, Guy Montag, begins to question his role in society after meeting a strange girl who is convinced there is more to life than driving fast and watching television.

I’m not sure but I think I must have been in high school when I read this book for the first time and I remember generally enjoying it, but I don’t remember what about it I liked.  This time around, I felt so inured to the censorship theme that I was uninterested in reading it.  Of course, by the die’s decree I have no choice but to read it, so I forced myself. 

I first read it long enough ago that I only remembered most of the major events about the book and none of the details.  I had the strangest experience though when, near the end of the book, Montag imbibes an elixir which is meant to disguise his scent and he’s told, “You’ll stink like a bobcat, but that’s alright.”  I didn’t find it all that funny this time around, but reading this specific phrase recalled a memory of sitting somewhere, in class, or in my room when I read that for the first time and thinking it was the most hilarious thing I’d ever read.  The recall was so detailed and it ran through my head so vividly that it almost made the phrase funny again.  It was a really strange and really cool feeling.

It was so unexpected, I hadn’t even remembered that line.  I really enjoyed trying to hold onto that fleeting, but strong, mental connection.  Weird, the things we hold onto.  It is somewhat fitting though, as Montag struggles with his memory of what life was like before, and occasionally gets flashes of distant memories of his past.

How (not) to read this book
This book is ostensibly a story about the perils of censorship and the book cover (the picture this week is not my copy) really tries hard to prime your understanding of the book in this way (maybe it’s the publisher’s idea of satire).  But based on Bradbury’s own note at the end (my printing included an Afterward and Coda!  Really?), that seems to be the theme that he was most concerned with when writing it.  People, I’m here to tell you, you don’t have to read it this way!  That’s right, I’m the F451 gadfly.

For obvious reasons, this cover spoke
to me more than my copy.
Return to rule 3 of the Firefighters Code.  Burn everything.  The Code struck me as a very powerful image in my second read and I think this is one of the first hints into what is going on below the surface of Bradbury’s horrible method of telling, not showing (one of the most severe crimes a writer can commit).  We begin to find that it isn’t just part of the Firefighter’s Code, but that all of society is on a path toward complete destruction.  Of books, of friends, of families, all of society is in rapid decline.  All-out war threatened to destroy everything and everyone.  Husbands and wives spend their lives together and don’t know a single thing about each other.  Montag can’t even remember how he met his wife.

These are the phenomena that really upset Montag.  He had everything in the world to make him happy and he was still miserable and what’s worse, he had no idea why or what to do about it.  It is only when he comes to believe that books are the only tool remaining that might possibly set humanity right again that he obsesses with saving books and bringing down the firefighters.  Montag wasn’t on a crusade to see to the survival of books; he was on a crusade to save his species!

I think what has made people so hooked on the censorship issue is only that Bradbury hammers his readers over the head with lectures far worse than Heinlein ever did.  And even though the book also warns against allowing others to tell us what to believe, we still listen, rapt, to Bradbury’s, skin-deep interpretation (Bradbury loved starting sentences with conjunctions too).  Just because you create a work of art, doesn’t mean you have the final say regarding what is important and why.  That is my job ;)

Considering recent world events, the idea of such strict censorship and governments limiting communication are still very poignant and just as scary as in 1953.  But as I said, I’ve become so de-sensitized to the story over the years that this wasn’t the most interesting aspect to me.  You’ll get out of it whatever you want, but know there are other things going on below the surface if you care to look.

I have the rest of the nominees from this year lined up in my audiobook queue.  I have a strong suspicion that this book could only be chosen in hindsight, because so many people are nostalgic about it, not that it was the “best.”  I didn’t love the book, but I also didn’t hate it.  It was just kind of…meh…  There were still a number of elements that make the book historically significant and worth reading if you’ve never gotten around to it.  Bradbury has a way with words that even if he force feeds readers, he can create moods (see this week’s Epic Quote) and set up a scene in a way that is just amazing.


Universe 1/5 (Boring)
Social/Political Climate 5/5
Dialogue 4/5
Scientific Wonders 1/5 (Everything but the hound is also...boring)
Characters 3/5

Overall 14/25

This week’s book is Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein.  This is the second book of the decade by Heinlein and the final RETRO Hugo.  As I said last week, this is a pretty important book since the two Heinlein books from the 50’s will be battling it out for the unofficial master of the precious award. 

Next week’s book is A Case of Conscience by James Blish.  I know very, very little about this one, and I’ve never read anything by Blish so this will be my 4th new author since beginning this project.  Of course that means that there is only one book left so I won’t need to role the die next week which makes me very, very sad.  I need a support group.


  1. I love those random moments from books that stay in my mind, all out of proportion to their actual significance. It's so fun to come across them again, especially if I've forgotten about them.

    I remember when I read this years ago I was really struck by a brief reference that mentioned people could read the one-page summary of Hamlet, or anything else. It totally changed my impression of the book, that it wasn't really about censoring stories but about minimizing and simplifying and making everything quick and easy and mindless. And in our world of very short attention spans, it's an important message!

  2. True, true. They certainly had stories and programs they listened to as well, they just lacked any substance at all. Another thing that struck me about that was when Faber mentioned that society had chosen this path toward simple, mindless programs and that he figured people would eventually make the same choice again someday even if they saved the remaining books.

    For all my complaining about Bradbury's writing, there was definitely some hardcore fatalism which was hard not to appreciate.

  3. Now, it is clear who my beloved Emmeline has gained most of her brilliance from, but with that being said I really think that there was one thing missing from your elongated, but yet completely enjoyable, review of the great American classic Fahrenheit 451. You failed to mention the books sister book: Aunt Chip and the Great Triple Creek Dam Affair. This book so purposefully follows the same story line and plot but yet doesn’t tell you what you need to know. The illustrations along with the great descriptions in the book aid you in making your own discoveries about censorship and the meaning behind televisions overtaking of relationships and socialization.
    This by far has been my favorite review. Kudos to you Mr. Frantz! The main reason being I can actually understand the story line in your review. Possibly due to the lack of alien existence or espers intervention which I find so difficult to wrap my meager mind around. But (humming the conjunction song), I think gaining the chance to reminisce about Aunt Chip’s hardships over the 50 years it took her town to regain their composure made me happy that through clouded eyes we don’t live in a horrid place with those nasty firefighters! It also reminded me that I still have to upload minutes from my lectures during today’s classes, so our administration can quality check and avoiding getting called down to review video tapes with the committee that could possibly show some embarrassing dancing.
    After painstakingly picking over our pigeon hole-ing list of plot lines, I’d have to settle on: a hero’s journey.

    1. Where to begin?

      Ali, when you get excited about something, you might get more worked-up than Leslie Knope. Also, when you get tired of teaching you should consider joining the army as a codetalker (that's an actual career right?). There are probably only 1 or 2 people in the WORLD who understand everything you just said (and I'm not sure that I'm one of them). We could probably have a vault of money to swim in like Scrooge McDuck with you creating and cracking military code the way you just wrote this.

      I like that your favorite review has been the book with the lowest score. I'm curious about Aunt Chip too. You don't recommend very many books so now I'm interested.

  4. I was one of the few that escaped High School without having to read this one, so I read it later. I was certainly put off by the tell over show aspect, the diatribes, which I might have liked better younger. I probably would have appreciated the censorship part more, younger, as well. thankfully, as you point out, "you don't have to read it this way."

    great review, I really like the way you approached this post in finding other ways to approach the re-read.


    1. Thanks! I've been thinking since writing this that the age at which most people read this book, most likely teen years, is probably a pretty big reason for why people stick to the censorship theme. As you suggest, censorship issues probably have more appeal to a younger crowd. What gets me is that even years later, Bradbury seems to have been stuck on the censorship theme. Oh well, maybe he was just writing to his audience.

  5. I too read this for the first time in High school, and was obsessed with the censorship theme. I read it again in college, and really liked it.

    and now, that I'm completely bored by the censorship theme (yes, I get it, thank you!), I'd LOVE to read it again, so I can finally focus on everything else, like you were able to, and see that it's about the total destruction of society.

    Reviews like this make me want to sign up for Community College Literature classes, just so I can have guided discussions on all these books that got glossed over when I was a teen. I'm finally old enough to appreciate what the books are really about.


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