Fahrenheit 451 – The Temperature at Which Books Burn
The scariest story I’ve ever read is not a horror story at all. Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” is the story of a world where books are illegal. They’re burned by firemen who wear the number “451” on their uniforms because that’s the temperature at which books burn. Its science fiction at its best, but to an avid reader like me the thought of a world without books is truly horrifying.
Bradbury’s original short story was reworked and published as “The Fireman” in the February 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. He created a future where the government keeps everyone happy by destroying anything that might cause debate or conflict. Literature is forbidden. It is thought to be a source of discord, disorder and disturbance. Special task forces composed of firemen are sent out to search and burn illegal books, such as literature by Whitman and Faulkner, historical texts and the Bible.
Guy Montag is a fireman. At first he enjoys his work, but after talking to Clarisse, his seventeen year old neighbor, her free thinking, inquisitive nature makes him question what he’s doing. He realizes he’s unhappy with his personal life as well. His wife is addicted to tranquilizers and television, refusing to face reality.
One day while searching an old woman’s house for books Guy reads a line that catches his eye and he steals the book. The woman will not leave her house or her books. She lights the kerosene herself and burns with them. Guy is disturbed by her suicide and he takes sick leave. The fire chief visits him and explains that society in its search for happiness and political correctness prompted the government to suppress literature. Guy continues to hoard books and hides them in his own house. Betrayed by his wife, he is ordered by the chief to destroy them. Guy makes a choice that turns him into a fugitive and has him running for his life.
Although the story seems to center around censorship another prevailing theme is the decline of reading due to television. In Bradbury’s dystopian world mass media has taken the place of reading, leading to a society where individual thinking is destroyed. It’s easy to spot the resemblance between his world and ours. His vision is prophetic in the light of today’s media consciousness with easy access to television, movies and the internet. These are valuable tools, but should be used to encourage reading, not replace it.
This is an entertaining story with memorable characters. It’s also a thought provoking read that ends with redemptive hope for the future – a true classic that has stood the test of time.
Publisher: Ballantine Books (August 12, 1987)