Saturday, April 4, 2015

Banned Book #10: Fahrenheit 451

by Pa Rock

Ray Bradbury began forming the core of his literary classic, Fahrenheit 451, in 1946, but it took seven years for him to collect all of his ideas and shape the book into its final form.  In June of 1953 Bradbury, an energetic young man who was trying to establish himself as a writer while struggling to put food on the table for his young family, decided if he was going to get all of his ideas for the futuristic novel woven into a book, he had best create some alone-time and get it done.  He entered the typing lab at UCLA in his hometown of Los Angeles and started feeding dimes into the college’s pay typewriters (10 cents per half-hour) - and began typing in earnest.  Nine days later he emerged with his final draft of Fahrenheit 451 in hand.

In the 1950’s, the time of the Red Scare, America was focused on atomic bombs and the spread of communism.  Scurrilous politicians like Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon were making careers off of stoking the peoples’ sense of fear and pointing fingers at anyone who held political views that weren’t totally mainstream.    Dissent was more than just frowned upon, it was dangerous, and Congress spent an inordinate amount of time on hearings, or witch hunts, which were focused on exposing communists in the government and in the arts.  When the national hysteria finally began to wane, Ray Bradbury stepped forward with Fahrenheit 451 and showed everyone what an unchecked totalitarian society could look like.  It was an extremely timely piece of literature.

Bradbury’s world of the future is a place where cars, called “beetles,” routinely go over a hundred miles an hour and often suffer horrific crashes.  Television, which was a new medium in the 1950’s, has been enhanced in Bradbury’s future world to large walls (like our really big – big-screen televisions of today).  Families of the future buy their television walls, one by one, as they can afford them – and gradually form a room within the house made of those large screens.   The characters on television, called the “family,” interact with the viewers, and those people without lives outside the home gradually become consumed with their television families – much like the lost souls today who routinely confuse Facebook with real life.

Fahrenheit 451 is focused on firemen of the future.   In the world created by Ray Bradbury, houses and buildings have been fireproofed, eliminating the need for traditional firemen – and the job has evolved into something quite different from its traditional role.  Firemen of the future set fires instead of putting them out, and they have a special mission to help eradicate books – because books cause people to think and worry.  When a cache of books is discovered, firemen race to the scene and burn them.

Guy Montag, a fireman, is the central character in Fahrenheit 451.  When he isn’t at the firehouse awaiting calls to burn books, he is at home with his wife Mildred.  Mildred doesn’t work, and she spends her days sitting within the three walls (they haven’t been able to afford to buy the fourth yet) of her television area interacting with the family.  Sometimes Mildred has friends over for cocktails and together they enjoy the programs that the family put on.

Guy is unhappy with his life, but he doesn’t realize it until he meets a strange young girl one night as he is walking home from work.    The girl, Clarisse, asks Guy if he is happy – and suddenly his sedentary world begins to heave.  Before long Guy Montag is a man on the run, a man racing away from the clutches of a completely domineering social order.

Ironically Fahrenheit 451, a book about the elimination of books, has made its way onto many banned book lists over the years.  It is the story of the struggle for the survival of ideas and of the individual.   Not every member of the herd is comfortable with the notion of strays – or of the concept of free will – and one way to maintain the status quo is to eliminate things that foster change – things like books – books like Fahrenheit 451.

And it is change that keeps us vital and infuses our lives with meaning.

Treasure your books!

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