When I was doing my research on our current bimonthly theme on Books about Books (and the River of Words), Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 came on top of most of the lists that I read. And I knew that it was time for me to get to know the man’s writing, finally. Most of my friends who are avid bibliophiles have spoken of their romance with the late Bradbury and so I braced myself against falling in love. Epic fail in that regard.
A Future without Books. Even before the word dystopian became a byline, Ray Bradbury, visionary that he was, tinkered around with the idea until it set fire in what is to be one of his most popular novels, Fahrenheit 451 (said to be “the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns”). Set in a futuristic timeline, it portrays a bleak picture of people who are going through the motions of existence – the vitality eked out of them by blind fear, quiet submission, and the burning of any kind of printed word on sight. It reminded me of Rodman Philbrick’s The Last Book in the Universe (which I reviewed here two years back) with its sobering and oft-frightening vision of the universe – and its general loathing of flights of fancies captured on paper.
The Fireman’s Stargirl. Guy Montag is the main character in the story, a fireman, who enjoys burning books because he didn’t know any other time – or any other world – when this does not occur. As he pointed out:
It’s fine work. Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ’em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That’s our official slogan. (p. 8)
Instead of putting out fires, firemen have the all-consuming task of starting fires in houses that contain books. Guy hardly questioned what he was tasked to do – until he met Clarisse McClellan – who reminded me of Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl.
Filled with a burning curiosity that matches the flames of books slowly but efficiently set on fire, Clarisse starts asking questions that made Guy wonder about the nature of happiness, the composition of laughter, and the substance of conversations. The fireman’s stargirl started rubbing dandelions under her chin (to find out definitively if she is in love), tasted the rain, and looked at him with all-knowing eyes – blatantly showing her free spirit for the world to see and touch and feel – that it wakened a sleeping vein in Guy’s soul – making him see the world differently, a fire in his heart. Guy realizes, of course, what he needs to do as he started asking himself: How do you get so empty? he wondered. Who takes it out of you? (p. 44)
Beatty’s Rationale for Book Burning. As Guy is filled with existential doubts about who he is and his place in the world, his immediate supervisor, Beatty, explained the importance of what they do in a way that chilled me to the bone:
With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school who was exceptionally ‘bright,’ did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?
This book has been published in the 1950s but its message still digs deep into one’s marrow. It reminds me to run my fingers lovingly though the pages of my book, inhale its yellowed crispness, and savor the words in my mind. How Guy Montag found his salvation, I shall leave for you to discover.
On Literary Aesthetics and Peer-Reviewed Scholarly Manuscripts. In Bradbury’s Afterword or Coda, he noted that there is more than one way to burn a book with the world filled with people “running about with lit matches.” Something in what he said struck a chord in me as he also talked about manuscripts being edited:
Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme. (p. 177)
I suppose only someone of Bradbury’s status and absolute brilliance can say this and get away with it unscathed. As an academic, editing is a way of being – the entire publication process is predicated upon one’s research paper being “guillotined”, subjected to minute scrutiny, and chopped down, enhanced in a few areas by blind peer reviewers. While others may have their own views about the process, I have always thought of it as a meaningful and humbling learning experience. I can literally feel my narrative being shaped and toned until it glistens in its muscular form – and I find joy in that.
Crystalline Writing. Bradbury has a distinct voice all his own – one that leaves a distinct imprint in one’s sensibilities. He shows that there is a science and an art to digression and there is craftsmanship in how he manages to weave together filtered thoughts into a coherent pattern from sheer will – as the words simply flow from him with seeming ease. Here is one quote which I feel captures that crystalline quality of his narrative:
The girl’s face was there, really quite beautiful in memory: astonishing, in fact. 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 had to tell of the night passing swiftly on toward further darknesses, but moving also toward a new sun. (p. 10)
You don’t know exactly where he’s going, but boy, would you want to take on that ride with him. It’s that uncertainty and the roller-coaster feel of the words tumbling down that excites and quickens the reader’s pulse. My favorite lines though are the following:
‘I hate a Roman named Status Quo!’ he said to me. ‘Stuff your eyes with wonder,’ he said, ‘live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that,’ he said, ‘shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.’ (pp. 157-158)
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. A Del Rey Book. The Random House Publishing Group, New York, 1953. Book borrowed from the public library.
AWB Reading Challenge Update: 113 (35)