Fahrenheit 451 is the ultimate banned book – a book about banning books to the degree of burning any that are discovered, as well as the house of the owner who concealed them. Firemen in this dystopian world don’t mess around. They start the fires, not put them out. Their world is pretty scary, especially when they reveal the history of how this censorship came about. Most of it has to do with TV and extreme political correctness. People had stopped reading before books were ever banned.
This book is classic old-style dystopia. It’s very political and it critiques society, but there isn’t much in the way of character development. The message is clear-cut: censorship is not pretty. It’s a bad thing. There wasn’t much beyond that. It was a lot more straightforward and a lot less deep than I imagined it would be.
I’ve spent years avoiding this book. In middle school, they showed us the film version, and the scene with the woman burning alive alongside her books disturbed me so much that I grew a passionate hatred for the entire concept of Fahrenheit 451. Recently, I realized that without that young-teen bias, this would probably be a book I’d enjoy. I love dystopias, after all. So I decided to give it a chance, and the Banned Books Challenge this month gave me the perfect opportunity to do so. The verdict? In terms of personal enjoyment, it was much better than I expected, but not as good as some other dystopias I’ve read (especially character-oriented ones). On the other hand, politically it was a very interesting book.
The central irony in any dystopia is the presentation of the original world’s intention to create a utopian society. In many of these old-style dystopias, citizens are kept happy and peaceful by the lack of thought. The world of Fahrenheit 451 is meant to be perpetual fun and games. Constant mindless stimulation. No one thinks, and no one cares to. It’s only when the balance is upset that people realize that what they’ve lost is not worth what they think they have (that artificial happiness and peace). The layers are peeled back, and they realize this perfect society is actually a nightmare. The central character of this book starts as a fireman who loves to burn books before a chance encounter with a free-thinker upsets his world.
The most telling quote came from the section where the firechief tells the disillusioned fireman the history of why books came to be burned:
You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. … Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. … Forget them. Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.
Banned Book Week is coming up in the last week of September. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone really, honestly, actually wanting to ban books, but sadly, there are those sorts of people. Fahrenheit 451 remains eye-opening because of these people. If you don’t believe this issue is here and now, think about the two guys claiming to be part of some “Christian” group from Milwaukee: They are currently suing for the legal right to publicly burn the West Bend Library’s copies of Francesca Lia Block’s Baby Be-bop. Actual, real-life book-burning wackos do exist in this world, as crazy as that sounds, so we need to be extra-vigilant in keeping censorship at bay.