[Monday Reading] Joyless Firemen, Free Spirits, and Living Books in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

IMWAYR

It's Monday! What Are You Reading

Myra here.

It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (new host of Monday reading: Kathryn T at Book Date). Since two of our friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have been joining this meme for quite awhile now, we thought of joining this warm and inviting community.

I read and reviewed Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 back in 2012 when we had a books about books reading theme. However, I have just recently purchased its “authorized” graphic novel adaptation by Tim Hamilton, so I thought of re-sharing my original review here, alongside my thoughts on the graphic novel version.


Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation

Adapted and Illustrated by: Tim Hamilton
Published by: Hill and Wang, 2009
ISBN: 080905101X (ISBN13: 9780809051014)
Bought a copy of the book. Photos taken by me.

When I found out that there was an “authorized” graphic novel adaptation of one of my favourite Bradbury novels, I made sure I purchased it immediately. In Ray Bradbury’s Introduction to this graphic novel adaptation, he described how he allowed the voices in his head to simply emerge on the page as he was writing the original story:

So what you have here, now, is a pastiche of my former lives, my former fears, my inhibitions, and my strange and mysterious and unrecognized predictions of the future.

I say all this to inform any teachers or students reading this book that what I did was name a metaphor and let myself run free, allowing my subconscious to surface with all kinds of wild ideas.

I was wondering how Tim Hamilton would be able to create the visuals of a story that was so hair-raisingly disturbing that it has emerged a classic, and even required reading in some schools.

I am glad that he was able to remain true to the story’s very essence, capturing the characters such as Clarisse McClellan perfectly:

She remained every bit the free spirit here, kind of like a luminous creature with her golden hair, upturned face, and fearless questioning of the fireman, Guy Montag. Her innocent query about whether Guy was happy created such a reverberation that the echoes could be felt by every reader in every decade who happens to be familiar with this novel.

Then of course there is Guy’s overriding guilt as he burned a woman along with her books, when she refused to leave them behind or turn them over to the state – things that he didn’t even bother thinking about previously, before he met Clarisse:

The wife’s casual indifference, disaffected state, and dismissive gestures remained exasperating for me, especially as guy’s sensibilities are gradually being awakened that he had to go seek out a mentor, so that he can be educated enough to understand what is written in the books he is gradually stealing from the houses that he was supposed to burn.

And then, I find this:

“I saw the way things were going, a long time back. I said nothing. I’m one of the innocents who could have spoken up.”

It made me reflect on just how how complicit I am with the daily injustices that I am bearing witness to as I watch the news daily and read the reports on my social media feed. I wonder if I am doing enough to change what is happening right now to the madness that we call our world. Ray Bradbury was a sage. His works are timeless.


This is from a review I have written in 2012.

Fahrenheit 451

Written by: Ray Bradbury
Published by: Del Rey / Ballantine Books, 2003 (First Published in October 1953) Literary Awards: Hugo Award for Best Novel (1954), Prometheus Hall of Fame Award (1984), Geffen Award for Best Translated SF Book (2002), California Book Award Silver Medal for Fiction (1953)
ISBN: 0345342968 (ISBN13: 9780345342966)
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

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.

Scene during the book burning in Berlin’s Opera Square. Berlin, Germany, May 10, 1933.
— National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.
Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

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)

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

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)

Here’s to stuffing our eyes with wonder and listening to the whispered secrets of books that have been burned through the ages.
  1. What a post! I remember reading Fahrenheit 451 in school, along with several other “classics”, that I absolutely hated or simply glanced through because I resented being told what to read by my stuffy old teachers (as I saw them). Now that my school days are long behind me, I should give these titles a second chance, and read them with a fresh new perspective!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  2. I read Fahrenheit 451 in school two years ago – I was the only one in my class who enjoyed it. After reading the book and about the topics discussed, hearing that only made me disappointed in my classmates.
    The power of conformity is strong, and leads one to lows never thought achieved. Conformity crumbles the mountains that Beatty speaks of, for valleys will not try to rise to even the level of the ground – they bring the ground to them. When we appreciate differences and remember the joys of individuality, we raise the entire landscape – mountains are regarded for their splendid trails and breath-taking views, and valleys are visited for their diverse wildlife and awe-inspiring flora. Praise the uniqueness of the individual, and not the vapid traits of the crowd. Inspire teamwork, but not herd-mentality. Together we are stronger, but we must still be ourselves. Accept others, putting no one down, and above all accept yourself for who you are. If everyone would do that, truly appreciate each other, then we will be able to avoid the stripping of diversity outlined in Fahrenheit 451.
    Wow. I did not expect any of that to come out! 😉

    Like

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: