By Ray Bradbury
Paperback, 159 pages
2012, Simon & Schuster
I’m going to make the assumption that most of you know what Fahrenheit 451 is about – if you don’t, well, the short version is that in this world, firemen cause fires rather than put them out. And what they’re setting on fire are books and the homes of those who dare to own them.
There was a charity book sale at my workplace recently and I nabbed a second copy of Fahrenheit 451 because I liked the cover and figured I’d have a go at annotating. I knew it had been years since I first read it and I recalled being blown away by Bradbury’s skill at predicting the future. I wanted to see if my amazement held up.
I checked my spreadsheet (it’s possible there’s a post floating around here with a screenshot of the tracker I use for my reading, but I couldn’t find it) and found I first read Fahrenheit 451 in January of 2011 (also the year I started using my spreadsheet). I wasn’t writing reviews back then, but I marked it as 3.5 stars on my LibraryThing account. So I guess while I was impressed by how his version of a dystopia mirrored many aspects of the world I was living in, the book still left me wanting. Pretty sure it was thanks to the ending.
Pretty sure that much hasn’t changed.
Let’s start at the beginning – I didn’t take pictures of my notes because there’s nothing particularly appealing about the design, but I’ll highlight some of my thoughts. Quick warning, this will be a sort of ramble-review so I’m going on the assumption that you at least know the basic plot. If you’re looking to avoid spoilers, well…
“It was a pleasure to burn.” I think, if I had to pick, this would be my choice for most iconic opening sentence in a novel.
We meet Guy Montag, fireman extraordinaire, and are introduced to his job and some of the technology of his world, including the “glove hole” he sticks his hand in so his front door will recognize him. I enjoy the fingerprint technology used to unlock my phone, but I’m glad we don’t have Bradbury’s imagined glove holes…
Throughout this re-read, I found Bradbury’s writing both simplistic and overly descriptive. For example, much of his technological predictions (yes, I’m going to count writing fiction set in a future someone is imagining as a prediction) were explained briefly, but easy to imagine. Then we get random, somewhat flowery descriptions like this:
“She had a very thin face like the dial of a small clock seen faintly in a dark room in the middle of a night when you waken to see the time and see the clock telling you the hour and the minute and the second, with a white silence and a glowing, all certainty and knowing what it has to tell of the night passing swiftly on toward further darkness, but moving also toward a new sun.”
My notes read: WTF kind of face is that?!
The shift in tone bothered me and I’m not a fan of descriptions like that. I find them hard to connect with and somewhat pretentious. It’s just not my style. This was something I noticed throughout. I’m thinking this irked me just as much at age 22 as it did at 30.
I still enjoyed the way Bradbury crafted a society heavily involved in technology – primarily fast cars and wall-sized TVs you could interact with (Skype anyone?) – as well as the way he discussed the decline of the printed word and reading in general and everyone’s disregard for anything but their own lives. Even medical personnel are disconnected and unconcerned, more like computer techs than caregivers. Sadly, I still see some similarities to our modern times.
But the shifts in tone kept distracting me and Montag being a total idiot pissed me off. His interactions with his neighbor, Clarisse felt like they went from 0 to 60. First, he thought she was some weird kid, then suddenly she awoke something within him that made him question why he was burning books for a living. I like the direction Bradbury took, but it all felt so rushed. Just as suddenly, Montag is cracking up around his boss, letting out comments that clearly indicate he’s questioning the way things are and putting a target on his back. It was frustrating.
I still found the scene where a woman decides to burn with her books moving and thought-provoking. I added some notes on whether or not I might choose her fate if in the same situation. There were other moments throughout the book like that which I appreciated, I just wish they had been more consistent. Bradbury’s commentary on books and their creators was also utterly male-centric. I know that female sci-fi/dystopia writers weren’t exactly prevalent in the 50s, but it’s not as if they didn’t exist! And let’s not forget those authors of classics, such as Austen and Bronte and Shelley and all the rest! Bradbury only refers to the male creators and I won’t act like it didn’t bother me.
“And for the first time I realized that a man was behind each one of the books. A man had to think them up. A man had to take a long time to put them down on paper.”
But he still has gems like: “We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren’t happy.” and “The good writers touch life often.”
As the book progressed, it felt more and more rushed. To me, it seemed like it was a matter of 4 or 5 days that Montag had known Clarisse and suddenly lost his desire to burn books. Then he was spouting nonsense in front of his boss, attracting suspicion and trying to start a coup with the help of an old man he’d met once before. He’s quick to turn judgmental of the society he was so recently a part of and I didn’t find his transformation convincing. I know he was smuggling books before readers are let into the story, but it’s only implied. I never really felt for Montag or his situation. I wish his character and circumstances has been more developed before the book made it’s mad rush into his escape from the police and subsequent acceptance into a band of transient book lovers.
My notes related to that read something like this: Montag sucks at espionage. Am I supposed to think of as an “everyman” and think it’s normal he sucks? Am I supposed to like him? I don’t. Should I feel for him? I don’t. I do feel for the situation, but he’s a bit of an ass, erratic and underdeveloped.
My eyes started to glaze over by the end of the book. The action scenes did nothing for me – and not because I know Montag lives, but because I don’t care either way. The social commentary really ramped up and Bradbury’s approach didn’t suit me.
Overall, this as a middle of the road read for me. Much like with my previous read, I’m still impressed with the world he envisioned and he’s certainly got some excellent quote material. But I really wanted more from the characters and the plot and I wasn’t a fan of Bradbury’s sexism. Maybe in another 10 years or so, I’ll see what I think once more.
I’ll leave you with this:
“But you can’t make people listen. They have to come round in their own time, wondering what happened and why the world blew up under them.”