Thursday, September 23, 2010

Which came first: the fall of society or the burning of books?

Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury

***Mild Spoilers***

The concept of Bradbury's opus is quite simple: a dystopian society exists in which books are burned by "firemen" - firemen with hoses that douse everything with kerosene instead of fire-quenching water. Guy Montag is one such fireman; he believes in the unearthing of hidden literature and the burning of entire homes and their contents in order to punish those who broke the law. He traveled through life never questioning these societal rules, until he begins to question why reading is so disastrous and a book, almost magically, find it's way into his hands...then his coat...then his home.

The story itself is not complex, nor are the characters that populate the dystopian society. However, the underlying themes are quite complex and really made me pause to think about the society in which we live. In Fahrenheit 451, the government did not decide to suppress reading and literature by banning books; instead, the government simply responded to the pressure of society to sensor literature that illicited a negative feeling in anyone. In Bradbury's own words re: the story, "every minority...feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse."

This alone didn't initiate the ban on books that turned neighbor on neighbor, brother on sister, and husband on wife. The censorship by minorities combined with society's ever-increasing infatuation and reliance on television, shortened attention spans that demanded instant gratification, and a believe that every individual has the inherent right to be happy every second of the day is what led to loss of free-thought, critical thinking, and literature.

These 165 short pages had me thinking more than a book has made me think in a long time! Written in 1953, it is almost scary how Bradbury created a dystopian society that so closely resembles today's culture. No, we don't burn books but we are encompassing many of the fictional cultural norms that he hypothesized would lead to the obsolescence of books and reading. Many children and adults are more quick to turn on a television show for two hours instead of pick up a book; topics involving minorities (any kind of minority, not only race) can rarely be spoken without some group becoming outraged and demanding censorship, and the controversial topics that do persist seem to be of political mindset; and a sense of entitlement is permeating the younger generations. I'm not claiming to have answers, and I'm not saying that all of society is going to hell in a hand-basket - I'm just illustrating some chilling parallels.

A wonderfully thought-provoking book that will definitely remain with me for some time. The 0.5 star reduction in my rating actually stems for the extra afterword, coda, and interview with the author: in Bradbury's interview, he comes off as kind of a narrow-minded, judgmental person...the exact opposite of what he was attempting to promote in his book!

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