Saturday, November 17, 2007

Fahrenheit 451

I never read this classic in high school or college, but I serendipitously picked it up from the audiobook section of my library because I don't have a CD player in my minivan, and it was on tape. (I'm often forced to discover the oldies this way, and I'm glad of it!)

I had a vague idea that it was about government censorship and burning books--not an especially appealing theme, I thought. But if junior high students are expected to enjoy it, it must be an okay read. Besides, as a homeschooling mom of high school students, I figured I ought to at least see if it's worth assigning someday.

And I was pleasantly surprised. Bradbury is best known for his science fiction, but though the setting is futuristic, this is definitely an approachable work of literature on a human level.

It describes a society that has allowed mindless entertainment to replace genuine human connection and discourse. Written in 1953, elements of the story are positively prophetic. For example, many people wear "seashells" in their ears at all times, tuning in to a babble of meaningless news and drivel; the main character's wife wears them all the time, barely talking to him, and even falling asleep to the seashell's whisperings. Everyone has "parlor walls" which are actually giant interactive TV screens; the main character's wife complains that they haven't been able to afford the fourth wall yet. Everyone refers to the actors which appear on the walls as "the family."

Happiness and freedom from worry is the goal of this society. Human emotion is seen as an obstacle to happiness; therefore books, which explore the full range of human experience, are outlawed and burned whenever they are discovered. At one point the main character reads poetry from a book and it causes a woman to cry; she later reports him. Children are undesirable in this sterile society. There is one childlike figure who delights in the natural world and in human interaction; but she is labelled "anti-social" by the government (she refuses to go to school to spend hours in front of a video screen) and one day disappears.

In the end, the protagonist manages to break free and join a small band of refugees who live as hobos and who carry in their memories the classic books that they have read, preserving them for a future time when civilization will recognize their value and the memories can be extracted.

Looking for a quote (since I listened to it on tape) I was just googling (unsuccessfully) and discovered that Bradbury himself insists that his book is not about government censorship but about the dangers of television--written at a time when not every American home had one. I was gratified, because that's how I interpreted the story too--colored, perhaps, by some of my own fears about how much media the children of today are growing up with, and our whole culture's preference for unreality:

Twice in the last week, I've heard mothers of college-age students say their kids are far more likely to text-message them than to actually call them on the same cell phone. Instead of experiencing real conversation, we gather 'round the widescreen TV for "reality shows." Our iPods are always there to fill any silence. Some of us see more of the natural world on the internet than we do in our own neighborhoods.

I suppose Fahrenheit 451 sounds like a depressing novel, but one doesn't care enough about the main character, I thought, to feel disturbed by his future. It struck me as more of a fable, a story to learn from--before it's too late.

For more book reviews, see Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books.

5 comments:

Brea said...

This is one of my favorite books of all time; I'm glad you wrote about it! My husband loves some of Bradbury's other, more sci-fi stuff, but I fell in love with this book when I read it in sixth grade. My mom always encouraged me to read things that were out of the norm of what we read in school, and I am eternally grateful to her for that!!

Carrie said...

This sounds like a VERY worthy read! I've always avoided it as sounding boring but you put a curious twist to it and now I'm eager to get my hands on a copy. Thanks for your review!

Writing and Living said...

This is one of those books I've been meaning to get to for quite some time. I need to bump it up higher on the list.

Heidi said...

I read this book for the first time a year or two ago and was surprised at how much I liked it. Great in-depth review!

Literary Feline said...

Very well written review! I read this book earlier this year and could not help but think how relevant it is in today's society--in some ways, as you said, it was prophetic.