“Fahrenheit 451 – The temperature at which book paper catches ﬁre and burns…”
This introductory quote, quite artistically, sets the stage for the story – a dystopian future where possession of books is illegal and hence the books are mercilessly torched, by the ﬁremen themselves with the owners being arrested by the police; a society in which massive advertisements, violence, suicides, fast cars and loud noises define the daily lives of people.
It was released in the USA in the year 1953 and is considered to be the best work of Ray Bradbury. The 1950s in the USA, popularly called as the McCarthy Era, were characterized by political repression. In later years, Bradbury described it as a commentary on how mass media reduces interest in reading (with the advent of radios & televisions in American households). This story brings reference (among many others) to the historical role of book burning in suppressing dissenting ideas.
The protagonist of the story is a salamander-tattooed, fireman named Guy Montag, who, with a ﬁery smile constantly glued to his face, took pleasure in the burning of books. He never questioned the integrity of his profession in his twelve years of service, and continued to live his mundane life with his wife Mildred with whom he had lost all intimacy; until he met his new neighbour Clarisse, who was unlike anybody else; she rattled him; he felt her peering deep into his soul in their ﬁrst meeting – she opened him to his own feelings.
“How like a mirror, too, her face. Impossible; for how many people did you know that refracted your own light to you?”
“How rarely did other people’s faces take of you and throw back to you your own expression, your own innermost trembling thought?”
After witnessing the deeply disturbing death of a woman (who chose to burn herself with her books) one night while on duty, Montag got pushed over the edge; he became inquisitive about books and their content. He chose to go against his wife, his boss Beatty, and the authorities – when he fathomed the faults in their ways and the system. And thus began his journey on a dangerous endeavor, along which he incinerated his own house, found a friend in a retired English professor named Faber, and became a fugitive and a murderer.
Bradbury gave this story a loose end, which fairly appeals to the reader as it is something most people haven’t experienced before, besides giving us an opportunity to fantasize and speculate about Montag’s ultimate fate. The reasons given for his aversion to books were quite feasible; along with the design of the dystopian society that the author had so wonderfully crafted – three-walled televisions (expandable to four) through which Mildred talked to her ‘TV family’; special places where people could bully each other, smash window panes and wreck cars as an act of socializing; ﬁre-proof houses; sending handymen, instead of an MD to treat a woman who had tried to commit suicide, and an ongoing war – all of which paint a pretty bleak, yet believable picture of Montag’s world.
Unlike many of the books we come across today, this masterpiece has one of the most articulate illustrations on the cover, with meaningful chapter titles (a lot of books don’t have chapter titles, just numerals). The book is loaded with beautiful sentences and paragraphs, out of which these contrasting statements are the undisputed standouts:
“There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us”
“What traitors books can be! You think they’re backing you up, and they turn on you. Others can use them, too, and there you are, lost in the middle of the moor, in a great welter of nouns and verbs and adjectives”
The typography, which is small in comparison to the normal text size we usually come across, adds to the intensity of the story. The fact that the theme of this book continues to be relevant in our times, even though it was written more than 60 years ago, is exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure.
Considering that it is one of the most exciting reads in the dystopia-genre and takes the reader on a riveting journey, ‘Fahrenheit 451’ is a must read for those who love page-turners that leave you guessing well after you’ve put the book back in your bookshelf.