Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451
By Ray Bradbury

As part of Banned Book Week I am honored to be taking part in an event hosted by Sheila at Book Journey. When she posted the notice a couple of weeks back I was compelled to participate. I mean, how do you pass up the chance to get up on your soapbox and rain invective upon those who would ban books? It sounded like fun and indeed... it was a pleasure to write.

I chose to write about Fahrenheit 451 because I've read it almost a dozen times over the last three years (mainly with students). I have a real affinity for this book and I wanted to take the chance to delve a little deeper into it, flesh out a few of my ideas and theories concerning the novel, why it has gained such a controversial reputation and what it has to offer. In short, this is a long overdue review. Sorry... No giveaways. I'm way over in Asia and sending books off this continent is cost prohibitive.

First, the nuts and bolts...

Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953 at the very start of the television generation. In 1953 television was just beginning to establish itself as a viable mass media. Approximately 44% of American households had televisions in 1953 compared to only 9% three years earlier and over 70% three years later. Certainly, television was at the front and center of American popular culture at the time of publication and obviously a subject of much debate. If you listen to Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 is ostensibly a simple science fiction story about the incursion of television on society and a possible future hyper-focused on the newfound instant mass media. In Bradbury's version of America, books have been banned in lieu of the rise of television and a cadre of "firemen" have been formed to root out and burn all remaining books.

But the novel is also so much more than that. It is a veritable tirade (oft-times strident) against censorship, populism and government control. It is a constant reminder of the responsibility inherent in the concept of free speech and how our worse enemy in this world are not governments or corporations but rather ourselves. The agent of governmental and corporate change always and forever boils down to public pressure. They ostensibly work for the majority whether for votes or profits and they act in accordance to our wants and needs (whether we know what they are or not). In the immortal words of Radiohead: "We do it to ourselves."

And for that, Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most often banned books in North America.

Just imagine this. A book about banning books is a banned book in real life. Sounds to me like there is a host of parents, teachers, legislators and concerned citizens out there that don't understand the definition of irony. Talk about meta-banning! Banning a book about banning books? If it wasn't so infuriating, it would be the pinnacle of hilarity.

So, why is Fahrenheit 451, the book about banning books, banned?

Well, I have heard a few reasons. First, Fahrenheit 451 contains strong language. Second, there are instances of violence in the story. But let's be serious here. These are merely excuses. Books don't get banned for language or violence. If they did, the Bible itself could be banned.

Well, damn! There has to be more, right?

There sure as hell better be!

Montag does burn a Bible at one point in the novel and it has been banned for that particular reason in the past. But that doesn't seem to make much sense either since the main characters are trying so very hard to make sure the Bible is not burned and go to great pains to save it the best they can. The novel itself seems to speak favorably of the Bible and the reader is expected to feel a great sadness when the Bible is finally incinerated. So it would seem that those offended by a burning Bible are missing the point a bit.

Another reason for the ban that I found was the negative portrayal of women in the novel. Admittedly, Mildred and her friends are shallow, callous, stupid and weak to the extreme. When compared to Montag, Faber and even Captain Beatty, these women are nothing more than pathetic, television-obssessed cutouts who represent the pathetic, television-obssessed populace of America in this particular world. Mildred's idea of a good time is sitting in front of her three televisions all day watching inane programming then nagging her husband to buy a fourth television when he gets home. If things escalate with Montag she is liable to head out into the county in her car and run down dogs and rabbits for fun and one of her friends has had ten abortions. But then again, Clarisse McClellan is the catalyst for Montag's spiritual awakening and she's a woman. Furthermore, there are any number of books out there with no strong male characters. Those books surely aren't banned.

Another reason I discovered was the negative portrayal of minorities in the book. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the government itself that bans the books in the world of Fahrenheit 451 but rather it is pressure from the people themselves, specifically minorities (and here Bradbury is referring to literally any group of people who don't represent the majority be they black, white, doctors, hairdressers, cat lovers etc...). Captain Beatty lays it out in explicit detail when he notes that minorities don't want to be offended and the government obliges them in their quest for social equality. In bending to the will of minorities the government is pressured into banning literally every book ever published, owing to the fact that literally every book ever published has the capacity to offend someone, somewhere. In this way, Fahrenheit 451 can be seen either as a polemic against un-fettered democracy or perhaps a reminder that un-fettered democracy can theoretically give rise to populism which, in turn, can give rise to fascism. Interesting notion, that.

But that doesn't really work either, and here's why:

Throughout the novel the populist fascism that has overtaken American society is represented by fire. Fire is the agent of forgetting. It is the force in which the powers that be destroy unwanted social friction (i.e. books). The alternative to this is the ragtag group of intellectuals roaming the country outside the major urban areas. There are thousands of former professors living a feral life in the woods. After Montag hops into the river (Montag's baptism) to escape the Mechanical Hound, this ragtag group seems to be represented by water.

But water, just like fire, has the ability to destroy a book. So what is Ray Bradbury trying to say? Is he saying the the opposite of forced equality is also dangerous? I haven't worked that out. Probably nothing literal, but I'm sure there is something metaphorical in the shift from fire to water. It all sounds vaguely ominous at the end anyway. I've never seen the end of Fahrenheit 451 as hopeful or uplifting. It's as bleak as the beginning. Perhaps bleaker. But Bradbury isn't offering easy answers to these questions.

Anyway, back to why the book is banned.

My guess as to why Fahrenheit 451 is really banned is just as ironic as the the fact that it's banned in the first place. The novel itself is a very long diatribe against censorship. And those in the censorship game, be they parents, teachers, or legislators, would be hard pressed to censor anything with anti-censorship books mulling about. Let's call it a literary pre-emptive strike. Ban the books about free speech before they can gain a foothold in order to pave the way for more bans. One might imply that Fahrenheit 451 was simply banned for promoting anti-establishment sentiments, but I think it goes a bit deeper than that. Fahrenheit 451 is a virtual beginner's guide to critical thinking and the Socratic Method. As a teaching tool, it allows students to use reason, logic and their own judgment to formulate conclusions. Kids that master these skills tend to make up their own minds about things and don't swallow whole what parents, teachers, and legislators have to say. In effect, Fahrenheit 451 has the potential to promote open dialog, create free thinkers and encourage creative and dynamic thought.

Of course, trying to wrap your head around all this irony is akin to watching every episode of Twin Peaks on twelve hits of acid. Perhaps it's not worth the time and effort trying to understand the ban. It's meta-crazy!

If I were designing a one year intensive course in English literature for students between 14-17 years of age, Fahrenheit 451 would be a non-negotiable inclusion on the course syllabus. As far as I'm concerned, Fahrenheit 451 is required reading for all high school kids. As I mentioned about, it's a veritable textbook in reason. It's a brilliant introduction to the Socratic Method (I tend to teach Plato's Allegory of the Cave along with the book) and it literally begs students to think for themselves.

School isn't something to simply be endured for 13 years. It's a lifelong concept of human growth and discovery. The humanities in general (and English in particular) aren't simply a series of bird courses peppered between the job-creation subjects (math, science, business). They are the fundamentals tools that teach us how to remain students long after our institutional schooling is finished. In that respect literature plays an important role in teaching us what it means to be human. We can't simply pick and choose from the human experience.

In an age of ultra-accessible information via the Internet, Wikileaks, Occupy Wall Street, The Arab Spring, the Westboro Baptist Church, scandalous Mohammed cartoons, and any number of other examples, Fahrenheit 451 remains more important than ever. It continues to promote reason, reflection, critical thought and intellectual judgment in the face of irrational belief, superstition, greed and control. We owe it to our students to extol such questioning of authority rather than submission to it. Banning books such as Fahrenheit 451 sends a clear message to our kids that we simply don't trust their judgment.

Their judgment couldn't possibly be worse than our own....

Could it?


Brian Joseph said...

Great Commentary. I very much agree with you Ryan. This book is one of my old favorites. I first read it when very young as I was a Bradbury fan.

As you point out one of the things that make this book different and that I really like about it is that fact that the censorship and oppression came from the ground up.

I have a little bit of a dread of the masses. It is not just physical security that so many are ready to trade for liberty, but it is a false security against challenging ideas that so many people are all too ready to embrace that disturbs me so.

Lisa said...

I have never read this book. It's shameful, I know. I almost picked it up the other day when I was in WalMart, not just because I know it's a book I should read but because I was so surprised to find it in WalMart and wanted them to know that readers want books like it. Because otherwise they have something like 200 Christian fiction titles, at least that many romance titles, and a far amount of murder mysteries. But literature? Almost none. So, that's a long way of saying, thanks for convincing me that I need to go back and buy this book. At WalMart - where I will feel like I'm striking two blows with one book.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

Ryan I love your post here! And now I have to read this book! Thanks for joining in on banned book week!

Kristi said...

I read this a few years back and really enjoyed it. Yes, it's very ironic that this book was banned.

Jennifer Hartling said...

What a fantastic post! I adore this book and the irony that it is a banned work just slays me!

Man of la Book said...

Excellent commentary Ryan. I have not yet read the book, I'm ashamed to say.


....Petty Witter said...

Interesting and informative, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

Rebecca said...

I believe you are correct on every point you make. I really want to read it again.

David bone said...

It's great to see a blog of this quality. I learned a lot of new things and I'm looking forward to see more like this. Thank you.hgh

commercial chairs said...

Thanks for the insightful comment!

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