Monday, April 28, 2014

Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I reread this book for a book club. I'm glad I did, because apparently I retained nothing of the first time I read it. I know it's been a while, but you'd think I'd remember more than a few brief flashes. It's not like this is an unmemorable book.

Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of a dystopian America that burns books and sneers at learning and depth. Most people pass the time interacting with their televisions, acting out a scripted part with a fictional "family". We meet Guy Montag on the night he's just gotten back from burning down a reader's house and all the books in it, to find his wife has attempted suicide by sleeping pill overdose. The stomach pump operators who show up tell him this happens a lot, and he starts to wonder what's wrong with the society he lives in.

What sets Fahrenheit 451 apart from other dystopian novels is that there's no outside push to destroy knowledge or wipe out a way of life. This is a world its citizens have chosen to embrace. Yes, there are outliers, but those content with the status quo have no trouble trampling over them in their quest for utter mindlessness.

Most people bring up this book when people talk about books being banned from schools and libraries. It rather misses the point. Books don't need to be banned in this world. The fires are just a show to put on for the people, to reassure them their way of life is the right one.

Of course there are antecedents of modern ills. Clarisse McClellan, the young woman who helps Guy wrap his mind around what's wrong with the world, bemoans the disappearance of sidewalks and front porches, and how everything is sped up. How many miles of sidewalk does your city or town of residence have? How often do you see people just out on a walk? When was the last time everyone in your neighborhood hung out on their front porches? It might seem like pointless nostalgia in 2014, but it's changed how we see other people and how we converse.

While some of Bradbury's ideas seem borne of mere technophobia, for the most part, this book has a lot of things to say about modern society. He does allow for good storytelling in TV later in the narrative, luckily, which reassured me he wasn't just another "kill your TV" nut.

Unfortunately, the edition I own has an appendix with the author's comments after the book's publication. While I agree with Bradbury's assertion that he shouldn't edit existing works, his stubborn assertion that he needn't add depth to female or minority characterizations left a bad taste in my mouth. I see merit in criticizing authors for their blind spots, so they can work to correct them in later works. Bradbury felt differently, which is a shame.

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