Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness. Even so, Montag is unhappy; there is discord in his marriage. Are books hidden in his house? The Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department, armed with a lethal hypodermic, escorted by helicopters, is ready to track down those dissidents who defy society to preserve and read books.
I always thought this must be a massive book and one that would be really tough to get through… whoa, was I wrong! I think I had it mixed up with Catch 22, which is both of those things. When this book turned up in the post, I was a little bit shocked at how teeny tiny it is- my edition is actually smaller than those tiny pulp paperbacks! So cute and pocket sized! I got through this little novel in a couple of hours, and couldn’t put it down.
I’m generally not a huge dystopian fan, but if it’s done well I can get into it. For me, Bradbury’s world building felt seamless. I didn’t feel lost, everything was pretty familiar and plausible and even though not a great deal was explained, it felt pretty sensible anyway. I really liked that, because you drop straight into the story, with no crazy info-dump and you’re zooming from the get-go!
I loved the way Bradbury has turned professions on their heads, making firemen people who actually start the fires, not put them out. Academics have to roam the wilderness to survive. It’s so different from our own world, yet it works. It’s set in a future America and refers to many works of literature that are familiar to us now, which for me felt really comfortable, yet worrying that they were being burned and lost forever.
The TV setting and the banning of books in favour of a society of “equality”- meaning everyone and everything is pretty much dumbed down- was a bit terrifyingly real. We don’t have the whole TV walls thing, but I’m currently sitting next to a TV that I’m guessing is one of the largest you could get. We have channel after channel of dumbed down entertainment for the masses… you know the type, the “reality” shows, the Kardashians, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”… you have to wonder sometimes.
Some people have argued that Bradbury’s idea of how this dystopian, book-less world reflects our trajectory at the time of his writing this novel is out of date and thus not prophetic. I disagree with this stance, though I see their point. Yes, literacy rates have gone up, but reading is arguably going down, especially for pleasure. In some circles, reading is actually a ticket to being an outcast- it’s social suicide in practically every high school across the world! People are proud of the fact they don’t read and belittle people who do love books.
With the rise of technology, it is possible that reading levels will drop and books will become void, but I doubt that will happen for several centuries. I think that literacy may be on the rise due to access to education and technology, giving those who perhaps wouldn’t have gone to school the chance to learn to read. But whether they go on to read for enjoyment is yet to be seen… I truly hope they do, because it’s such a gift!
I don’t really get why the firemen were burning books. I can understand that society has lost their ability to focus and understand difficult texts, so the books became simplified and compacted to within an inch of their lives. I understand this because I believe it is true already… but why burn them? Why is it illegal? Is the government deliberately trying to squash all intelligence? There’s definitely some themes of censorship and restriction in here, but I wish they’d been slightly clearer and had a more defined reasoning.
In Bradbury’s dystopian world, the TV characters have taken over the role of family. People have become unwilling to have children and interact with each other on a personal level. Though there are attempts to disguise this, it becomes apparent very quickly that this lack of social interaction or close bonds, combined with a world overcome by television and a loss of education, is having a huge affect on the mental status of the characters. Your first meeting with Guy’s wife, Mildred, is with her lying on the bed after having overdosed on sleeping tablets. After Guy calls for help and she is saved, this incident is denied by Mildred and effectively swept under the rug. The paramedics talk about how common suicide attempts are and it comes up a fair bit throughout the novel with other characters.
For me, the level of detachment in this novel was more worrying than the dumbing down of society (though that was bad enough), because there was a glimmer of hope for that. I found the total detachment of the characters from each other, their surroundings and their community to be more disturbing. They’re even detached from themselves!
They require constant stimulation, don’t question anything, don’t pay attention to the little things like rain on their skin or the patterns on the moon. They don’t remember integral parts of their lives. They don’t speak to each other. They value the people on the TV more highly than their own real-life partners. Teenagers run over people for kicks. A mother talks of how much she loathes her children and doesn’t care that they hate her back. I think it scares me because it has the potential to become reality. Perhaps not to the degree of this book (I hope!) but getting there. We already don’t talk to our neighbours or the people we come across in everyday life.
Mildred has truly gone down the road of disconnection. She sleeps with the shell radio players in her ears, blocking out everything else. She refuses to turn down “the relatives” when Guy tries to speak to her. She’s unwilling to even attempt to read, because she thinks it’s pointless and doesn’t understand it. She’s so disconnected from Guy that she’s willing to sell him out to the government. She’s become immune to violence from the TV and sees no problem with Guy’s potential death. She doesn’t want to feel anything except happy, but her “happiness” is hollow and false.
The televisions go so far as to divert the citizen’s attention to an impending war, so much so that they refer to it but have no concern, despite Guy’s prediction of it being horrendous. Mildred’s friends have no concern for their lives or the lives of their husbands in the army. They beg Guy to switch their television programme back on to their insipid programme and stop talking. The media and television broadcast Guy’s bolt from the firemen and use it to disguise and divert attention from the impending war.
I think there is hope for humanity at the end of this novel, though it’s definitely up for interpretation. Though society is effectively destroyed, there remains the potential for redemption. Independent thought and spirit can’t be restricted forever- someone will always break the mould.
As an aside… Ohhhh man, finding the pics to put in this review practically killed me! People out there are so proud of not reading! I’ve come across it before in real life, as I’m sure most bookish people have, but geez… Here’s a direct quote:
Books are for losers and reading is dumb. That is why I’ve never read a single word on a single page of a single book in the Harry Potter anthology. I intend to keep it that way. If God wanted us to read books, why did he invent movies?? Case closed.
Case closed indeed.
Maybe Bradbury wasn’t so far off the mark after all.
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