When things start to get stale on your bookshelf, it’s a sign that you need to ask the best book critic there is: time. No matter the art form, the test of time is what separates the wheat from the chaff. If a novel isn’t outstanding, you can count on it to fade into obscurity. This leaves us with the best of the best, fittingly known as the classics.
Classic books from the 20th century, in particular, is actually quite easy to understand from a prose standpoint. Among these 20th-century classics is Fahrenheit 451, one of the great cornerstones of modern dystopian fiction.
What Is Dystopian Fiction?
Dystopian fiction is a genre of speculative fiction that envisions a world gone wrong. Whether it’s because of artificial intelligence gone rogue, capitalism spreading to the stars, or total government control, dystopian fiction takes a fragment of our current social environment and spins it into a narrative that explores what would happen if we’re not careful.
Fahrenheit 451‘s particular brand of dystopia has government censorship as its core theme. The novel was written by Ray Bradbury during the Cold War, a time of extreme paranoia and surveillance of people suspected of having communist sentiments.
The keyword here is “suspected,” meaning that the confirmation of guilt or of having any real grounds to say that someone subscribed to a communist ideology was ignored in favor of culling communism.
Perhaps the worst example of this Cold War censorship is book burnings. Book burnings are exactly what it says on the tin, burning books. But book burnings aren’t just the harmless destruction of paper.
They represent the erasure of thought, particularly contrarian thought, in an effort to subdue, control, and censor ideologies that go against that of the state, a majority religion, or other powerful institution or demographic.
Though most sources will have you believe that the only censorship that happened in the era was on Soviet soil, censorship in America was very much a reality that Bradbury lived through.
Ray Bradbury first published Fahrenheit 451 in 1953. A mere three years later, on May 7, 1956, the books of Wilhelm Reich were burned in what is still recognized as the only federally sanctioned book burning in the U.S.
What to Expect From Fahrenheit 451
If you do read Fahrenheit 451, expect a startling vision of the future where mass media controls the flow of information and the state regulates the transmission of ideas.
The dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451 opens with the main character Guy Montag describing fire and the pleasure of burning. Ray Bradbury tells us Montag’s thoughts in a style that is nothing short of fantastical.
His fireman’s hose becomes a venomous serpent that coils its way over mounds of books, turning each word-filled page into little more than ash, or what Bradbury beautifully describes as “black butterflies.”
Wondering why a fireman would be burning books? In Fahrenheit 451, the word “fireman” takes a literal meaning as someone who sets things on fire, particularly books, on behalf of the state. Guy Montag’s fireman helmet features a “451” symbol, which Bradbury explained is the temperature at which paper begins to burn.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 bears a few similarities to George Orwell’s 1984. Aside from the constant paranoia of being watched, the silent melancholy of imagining a world with more substance, and a prototypical manic pixie dream girl, both novels center around the awakening of a man who begins as a corporate drone that doesn’t question the real significance of what they’re ordered to do.
There would be no conflict in a dystopian novel if a character doesn’t begin to question the society they live in, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t beat around the bush. Almost immediately, it introduces us to the first seeds of doubt that kickstart Montag’s questions about the world and his role in it.
But even before these explicitly rebellious thoughts and statements, we already get an idea of why Montag is receptive to them.
The very language of Montag’s internal dialogue betrays an inclination to fantasy, to fiction, and to books. His serpentine hose draws parallels to the great monster serpents of mythology, a creature he wouldn’t have any idea of if not through books, or at least, the memory of their existence.
Is Fahrenheit 451 Still Relevant?
The book itself may be getting on in age, but the fears that gave rise to Fahrenheit 451 remain real, and maybe even more apparent, in our current sociopolitical climate.
Ray Bradbury envisioned a future where mass media would flood people with a slew of distracting information (if it can even be called information) while the state got to work on destroying books. This anti-truth campaign is a two-fold one that aims to dilute our access and desire to access critical information.
If anyone in Bradbury’s world took a moment to stop and think about the world around them, they would be sorely disappointed to find that the knowledge they seek is just gone. Permanently.
Modern social media sites are already engineered to keep you scrolling for as long as possible. The quick dopamine rewards of watching TikTok dances have proven a more lasting presence in public consciousness than the countless tragedies that happen worldwide. Even when an issue is closer to home, it never seems to stick.
Though Bradbury was correct in assuming that our collective apathy would allow for such blatant erasure to happen, what he failed to anticipate was that the state wouldn’t have to lift a finger.
Where to Get a Copy of Fahrenheit 451
The firemen of Fahrenheit 451 can burn as many books as they please, but it’s going to take more than a flame-spewing hose to erase books that are on the internet.
You can find a slew of Fahrenheit 451 PDF copies online, like this one which features only the text of the book. For a Fahrenheit 451 PDF that has a more book-like format, check out this PDF copy. If you’d like to pick Montag’s story apart for critical analysis, you may find this Fahrenheit 451 PDF more useful.
Have you been too busy to read as of late? Try this audiobook version of Fahrenheit 451.
Fahrenheit 451 is also available on Bookshop.org if you feel like supporting local bookshops.