Every science fiction fanatic, especially one as young as myself, has a list of classic science fiction books that he or she has yet to read. One's definition of classic can vary; it's not the content of the list that matters but its existence as a personal measure of our "SF street cred." I have read Dune and Starship Troopers, and plenty of Asimov pre-Goodreads. Until now, however, Fahrenheit 451 has eluded me. Today I remove it from my list.
Something about Ray Bradbury's style gives me pause. I am having trouble determining what. The best I can do is compare him to Philip K. Dick. Montag reminds me of Deckard from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Both men are bounty hunters, of a kind, who have begun to question the ethics associated with their job. Both have wives whom they once loved but who are now distant and disconnected, more comfortable with artificial stimulation (the television-like "walls" and the Penfield mood organ, respectively) than their own husbands. And like Do Androids Dream, Fahrenheit 451 is a creative masterpiece but not a technical one.
Montag is a tragic hero who undergoes a Heel Face Turn. He has been having doubts about his job as a fireman for some time now, and an alarm that results in a woman burning to death causes the ultimate crisis of conscious. Back at home, he reveals to Mildred that he has sequestered some twenty books in the air ducts of their home. He has never read them—never more than a line or two—but he wonders. And as a result, he is losing his faith in the firemen and censorship for which they stand. Thanks to the secondary characters of Clarice and Faber, Montag soon realizes that he is no longer happy living as he does. He needs to take a stand, even if it means becoming a fugitive.
Montag is a great character, and he pretty much carries the book on his shoulders. The other characters exist only in a Jungian sense, playing the role of various archetypes that help shape Montag's emerging personality. Mildred simply wants to preserve the status quo. She is more interested in her televised "family" than in the real world. Chief Beatty is who Montag could be if he refuses the call. Beatty was exposed to book knowledge but has utterly rejected it; he is essentially a fireman zealot. Faber is the opposite of Montag, a man of intellect instead of action. Similarly, Clarisse is full of the vivacity and energy that Montag wants. Where Faber is analytical and cautious, Clarice is emotional and adventurous. Montag will need attributes from both to survive.
Interpreting Fahrenheit 451 only as an adventure story is a mistake. It's not that good an adventure story. However, interpreting it as the personal journey of Guy Montag is more fulfilling, because Bradbury allows the reader to rediscover the importance of reading through Montag's journey. And here is where Bradbury excels, for he communicates the power of books succinctly and eloquently: "who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?"
Because that is the key: opponents of book knowledge are afraid of the well-read person. Knowledge is power, because the well-read person is armed with the facts and rhetorical ability to refute arguments. Censorship is never about trying to protect a population or preserve innocence, despite what its advocates claim. It is always about fear, fear that if someone communicates an idea, other people might pick it up, carry it like a banner, and bring the revolution. Censorship is just another means of control.
Books are one means of defeating censorship, but they are not the only means. I'll be the first to admit that books are sexy. There's something so attractive about a well-bound book: its poise, its smell, the crispness of its pages . . . sorry. Anyway, Bradbury reminds us that a book is just a container for ideas:
It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the 'parlor families' today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it's not books at all you're looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.
This speech of Faber's to Montag is my favourite passage of the entire book. It expresses both the joy I find in reading and a truth that bibliophiles should always remember: in this case, the medium is not necessarily the message.
Classics, owing to their legendary status, can be difficult to review. After all, if they are classics, they are almost tautologically good, yes? Or, sometimes there is a subversive thrill that comes from tearing into a classic with as much criticism as it can bear. In the case of Fahrenheit 451 it is easy to see why it's a classic. And I won't try to judge whether it deserves such status. Instead, I shall just cross it off my list. I don't regret reading it. However, Fahrenheit 451 is, in my opinion, a good example of the distinction between classic and great work.