Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, is the first book I decided to read and respond to as part of this journey. Not even in the top 100, as ranked by the Greatest Books list, it may seem like an odd choice to start off – enough of a “classic” to be recognizable by name, but the name doesn’t carry as much weight as Don Quixote, or War and Peace, or the Odyssey. So why choose it? I had actually been struck by an image I saw of the cover of the book, which includes a match in place of the “1” in the title, and a spine of gritty striking material like along the side of a matchbook. A book complete with the materials necessary to destroy it. That certainly caught my attention (a match which struck my interest, so to speak), wouldn’t it catch yours?
Personally, I can’t bear the thought of damaging a book. Every since childhood, even the thought of something as seemingly straight forward as writing my name inside the cover of a book I owned would horrify me, let alone bending in the corners to mark my place, or God forbid writing in the margins or taking a highlighter to the page. I’ve always associated the word “book” with words like “pristine” or “perfect;” to say I find them sacred wouldn’t be a stretch. Now, I wouldn’t say that after reading Fahrenheit 451 I’m prepared to set the book ablaze and watch it turn to ash (I actually cringe at the mere idea of it). I will, however, gladly report that reading the book led me to quite a bit of reflection regarding why I feel this way about the perfect preservation of books, and what that instinct is actually geared towards protecting.
Fahrenheit 451 is “the temperature at which book-paper catches fire, and burns,” as revealed to the reader on the very first page. Set in a 24th century wartime, it follows Guy Montag, a fireman whose job is not to put out fires, but set them. To books, specifically. The rationale behind the banning of literature in this society and the burning of any which is found rests on the idea that books and their teachings allow for disagreement, and by eliminating them a government can eliminate conflict. Guy Montag initially subscribes to this philosophy without question, but as the book progresses he finds himself increasingly repulsed by the lack of purpose or joy or life in those who surround him, like his wife who relies on television to be her family, and increasingly drawn towards the forbidden poems and prose within the very books he’s tasked with burning. He eventually acquires a collection of books, which are burned at the hand of another fireman, who he then murders, culminating in his being the subject of a nation-wide manhunt. He does manage to escape and find companionship among fellow outlaws who were forced to leave lives as career intellectuals, where he is introduced to the idea that each man is also the text which he remembers reading. That is, they each embody a book, or an author. All three are one and the same, and so the books can live on through those that read them and lived to tell the tale.
To say that this book got me thinking would be an understatement, and I’m not sure where I should start, so I suppose I’ll start anywhere and go from there. Firstly, if the premise of the burning of these books is to avoid conflict, isn’t it ironic that the society the novel is set in is overcome with children murdering other children for amusement, and war? It would be more accurately described as censorship in an attempt to avoid conflict against the government, but I think that the fact that the majority of characters in the novel are unable to see this and truly accept the fact that books are evil speaks to how effective the removal of these great books actually was. They removed from these people the critical thinking tools that would allow them to see the injustice taking place. They were fed lies about books and war and told to accept them as fact, and pummeled with pleasant media until they were content enough to not want for anything more.
This brings me to my second stream of thought: is this what “make America great again” would entail? Trump’s ideal America, where unbecoming news is flagged as fake, disagreeing facts as alternative, science as fabricated, citizens as insignificant and expendable, dissent as threatening. An America where the general public would choose ignorance as bliss, and lose their humanity to the point of reporting even your loved ones for the sake of an entertaining show, and to ensure that they themselves aren’t targeted. If the banning of books can do that, what is it that books contain without which we lose our humanity, and perhaps further our sense of life?
And so I’ve arrived back to what I started to discuss, what it is that this novel has left me with. As I’d mentioned, something about books has always seemed sacred to me, as if marring the surface would somehow destroy the integrity of the book, and lessen its value. This novel led me to recognize and then challenge that notion, particularly in the final pages. Perhaps the real value of a book lies instead in what it is able to teach you, or even just the fact that it is able to critically engage your mind, while the physical medium through which this is achieved is irrelevant. The ending of Fahrenheit 451 actually lends itself particularly well to the question I’ve set out to answer – what is it that Knowers know? In the novel, the “Knowers” were those who were able to keep a piece of a book with them in memory, because they sought out knowledge in spite of danger. They knew that the benefit of this preservation of knowledge far outweighed the risk and suffering involved, because this knowledge from these books is what gives people their humanity, and their freedom.
Knowers know that the value of literature lies its ability to bring freedom of thought to those who seek it.