Fahrenheit 451 – by Ray Bradbury

Recently I finished reading Fahrenheit 451, penned by the late Ray Bradbury. It was his breakout work of literature that garnered him critical praise and, I, like anyone who has ever read this book, would agree that it is a thought-provoking read. The plot is set in a dystopian future where Wall-to-Wall TV has enslaved people into a life of frivolity and ignorance while any dissenting source of ideas or information is wiped out of existence clean. In this dark and matrix-like slave world, books are actively sought after, not to procure and distribute the knowledge inside them but to destroy those books by burning them to ashes. Any book found will be burned, houses with books will be burned along with the books and anyone who resists will be dealt with fatal force. There is a special group of government employees called ‘firemen’ who, instead of putting out fires like the firemen of our times, pour gas and light up the books themselves. Our protagonist – Guy Montag – is one of those firemen, skin and hair laced with dark soot, teeth and nostrils with layers of ash deposits and clothes smelling like a mixture of gasoline and burnt rubber. One day he meets Clarisse, a precocious teenager who, with her blatant curiosity and innocence, puts him on a path of a revolutionary journey. It is a story of how censorship can lead to a world where even something as essential as books can be seen as weapons of public safety and how, with proper application of brute force and nuanced coercion and distractions, even a democratic society can be subverted into a tyrannical mass of mindless drones who willingly accept, even welcome, a life of hedonistic luxuries and illusionary lifestyles and in turn give up any type of freedom that ever mattered. It is a book about all those disillusioned people and the few who saw the light of knowledge and one man’s almost maniacal journey to find that light from enveloping darkness.

Beyond the engrossing story, the writing style of Mr.Bradbury is something of a lesson for anyone who likes to read or write. The words and sentences rhyme in certain ways and there are symbolic references that are not complex but sophisticated. The recurring themes change so much that you don’t notice that they are recurring until you realize the wide swath of metaphors employed by the author. The characters that speak, mold their souls with words that seem to have been in existence specifically for that meaning and although you have heard those words before, somehow they provoke something utterly and undeniably true in the reader’s mind. Montag starts off as a simple man of simple words, talking about sky and night and trains and the ‘great salamander’ but then as he grows, or rather morphs, into this person who is so unlike the Montag that existed before, his words change, growing ever more forceful, ever more deliberate and ever more rebellious. His boss Captain Beatty is a man of great speech and cunning logic with a wily mind to boot. Their conversations are some of the best sequences of words you will ever lay your eyes on.

In one particular instance the Captain informs Montag why books are not to be depended upon, like so:

The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.’ Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore

Then Montag meets some enlightened souls cast off into the wilderness by the society that found no use for, even felt threatened by, their intellect. One of them parts this useful piece of wisdom:

You’re afraid of making mistakes. Don’t be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people’s faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn

In the end, the take away from the story is to be human, which is to be curious and lively. The freedom we enjoy is fragile and it can be taken away from us swiftly by men who wield power lest we keep a constant look out. We should not fret our precious time in chasing materialistic fantasies or shallow trivia. The point of life is to not strive to gather information as factoids, but as lessons made of life-experiences that build character and cause actions. To make an impact in life, one must be prepared to make mistakes and learn, continuously. Despite being labelled as consumers, we are creators at our core so it is up to us to create the future we want to live.

Everyone must leave something in the room or left behind when he dies,[..]. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do,[..], so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching.


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