Fahrenheit 451: The Temperature at Which Book Paper Catches Fire and Burns… by Ray Bradbury (New York: Del Rey Books, 1953. 208 pp)

With over five hundred published works to his name, Ray Bradbury is one of the heavyweights in American literature during the 20th century. Born in Illinois, Bradbury’s family moved to California when he was thirteen. He graduated from Los Angeles High School and did not enter college. Drawn to writing from an early age, Bradbury attended the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society meeting many of the influential writers in the region. Bradbury began writing professionally by publishing stories in magazines. As his stories encountered praise, Bradbury began writing longer works. As the say, the rest is history. Bradbury’s best-known books are The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. For his contribution to literature worldwide, Bradbury received the National Book Foundation’s 2000 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and the National Medal of Arts in 2004.

The Hedonist’s Paradox

Do you remember the last time you were happy? What caused it? Did a bonus alter your disposition? Did it occur during a sporting event? Were other people involved? When you got there, could you trace the steps that lead you to delight?
Speaking personally, the times I recognize as “happy” are untraceable, as if, in some serendipitous turn, joy occurs by accident. Likewise, the times that I have pursued happiness, it fleetingly disappears like a tuft of smoke.
This phenomenon – philosophically, known as the hedonist’s paradox – states that those pursuing happiness as an end never find it; yet, those pursuing other ends, inevitably find happiness.

In Flames

At its core, Fahrenheit 451 riffs around the value of happiness in society. Set in an unspecified future date, the book depicts the existential breakdown of fireman, Guy Montag.
In this era, firemen no longer extinguish fires; they set them. Operating under the guidelines of a distant authority, the sole purpose of the firemen is to exterminate books. Artfully detailing the job description, Bradbury writes,

“It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history” (3).

What Happens When You Throw Powdered Milk in the Bonfire?

The firemen spend little time considering the question, “Why?” For them, the job provides a level of prestige and carnal joy. What boy hasn’t spent a summer evening in front of the fire observing the many ways in which objects become consumed by the flames? Touching on these desires, Bradbury asserts,

“’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’” (115).

Disagreement = Despair?

Montag, however, receives a large jolt when other characters asking him why he does what he does. His job is to burn books. But, why is it books? What makes a book worthy of burning?
While discussing these questions with his boss, Captain Beatty, Montag hears the party-line answer:

“’You know the law,’ said Beatty. ‘Where’s your common sense? None of those books agree with each other. You’ve been locked up here for years with a regular damned Tower of Babel. Snap out of it! The people in those books never lived. Come on now’” (38)!

Stated differently, books create unhappiness. With disagreement, society encounters despair through quarrel. Thus, in hope of asserting happiness in civilization, leadership removes choice; it deletes the “why.”

Why is Why Important?

Guy wants the “why.” He thinks, perhaps, that books provide the “why.” In this assumption, the rest of Fahrenheit 451 unfolds. Meeting a retired and underground professor, Montag hopes to save books. Yet, Faber – the professor – disagrees,

“It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlor families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. 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” (82-83).

A Victim of its Own Hype

Photo by Sarah Wynne
Despite its cult status, Fahrenheit 451 left me unsatisfied. While its novella length and easy prose allowed for a quick read, its content felt shallow. Although burning books supplies a shocking sub-thread to the narrative, it felt unbelievable. Of course book burnings have occurred throughout history, but forcibly burning books seems less believable than having books fade into obscurity as people focus on television instead of the printed word.
Furthermore, the characters never develop. As Guy meets people and interacts with them, his character functions only to keep the narrative flowing. Of course, he transforms as the story proceeds, but I never felt a connection with him.
In short, Fahrenheit 451 illustrates the hedonist’s paradox. Its culture pursues happiness and, in its self-medicated state, its citizens never comprehend that their happiness is false.
Montag asks the question, “why?” At its core, Fahrenheit 451 exists to remind us the importance of “why.” Remember to ask this question constantly. We all too easily forget “why” and just “do.” If we don’t know why, we may find ourselves acting in horrible ways.
I assume everyone has read Fahrenheit 451. For me, reading this book fulfills my desires to complete the canon of classic 20th century American literature. Honestly, I think the hype of this book gracing the lists of great American literature contributed to my disappointment in the book. Nevertheless, I understand its value and recommend Fahrenheit 451.



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