Until now, I had never read Ray Bradbury’s 1953 science-fiction novel Fahrenheit 451.
But, of course, I had read dozens of other books and seen scores of movies that were the book’s offspring. To name just one, 2010’s The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington.
So it’s an odd experience to get to know Guy Montag and his world — a world I’ve never visited before but have gotten to know very well in, as it were, alternative universes.
It’s also odd because, in many ways, I’m living in the world Bradbury envisioned. I get my cash from a robot teller. I rarely see anyone, especially anyone under the age of 30, reading a newspaper. The entertainment industry is selling consumers pre-packaged friends and family.
I suspect it’s not a coincidence that one of the seminal shows of this entertainment style was called Friends. And one of its stars, Jennifer Aniston, is a staple of what’s being peddled in magazines, tabloids and television gossip shows, years after Friends finished its run. (To be sure, it’s re-run seemingly nonstop on cable television.)
Montag’s wife Mildred is addicted to watching shows, such as the White Clown, on the huge television monitors that cover three of the four walls of the parlor. (The only reason they don’t cover the fourth is because the Montags haven’t paid for that one — yet.)
She’s never able to articulate anything about the shows of any given night, except they were “some of the best ever.”
“That’s my family,” she tells Montag.
In a later conversation, he poses some questions:
“Millie? Does the White Clown love you?
“Millie, does” — he licked his lips — does your ‘family’ love you, love you very much, love you with all their heart and soul, Millie?”
Does Jennifer love me? Or Kate? Or Kim? Or any of the other famous people I’m supposed to know — and, often, to my surprise, do know — without reference to their surnames?
No question, on many levels, Bradbury was prescient in Fahrenheit 451. And it would be interesting if there were a way to tease out what he saw in mid-century America that led him to sense these coming social changes.
Fahrenheit 451 is a book that’s often assigned to high school students by teachers who love to read.
It’s an easy enough book to get through, even for kids who aren’t into reading. And there are certainly examples from modern history — book burnings by the Nazis, and book bannings by school boards and city councils — to give the story immediacy.
This is a novel, however, that, to my reading, isn’t really about books. At least, not only about books.
Books for Bradbury are a metaphor for all art — actually, for all life.
Granger, one of the walking books Montag meets at the end of the novel, seems to sum up Bradbury’s vision:
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between a man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
The art of life
In other words, the task of life is to live. That’s the message of Fahrenheit 451.
Yes, in a minor way, it’s a cautionary tale about the need to protect books and humankind’s intellectual legacy.
But, much more deeply, it’s a challenge to actively engage with the world and with people. Not to destroy like Montag. Not to vegetate like Mildred. But to approach life with curiosity like Clarisse.
This is the message of all art. This is the art of life.
This is the art that anyone and everyone can — and must — take part in.
Patrick T. Reardon