Upon searching for a title to his masterwork, Ray Bradbury rang a school and a university searching for the temperature that book paper burns. No one knew. Then he rang the local fire chief. The chief looked up some tables and came back with 451 Farenheit. Too bad he was wrong. Despite the real temperature being closer to 850 Farenheit the title stuck.
The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman, one of those auspicious, long serving volunteers who spends their time searching for and burning books. As firemen have always done… There is a powerful message here given the age of editing, censorship, rehistorizing and literal book burning we live in.
Bradbury has said that he wrote the original short story (burning bright) with regards to the censorship prevalent in the McCarthy government but as per usual the situation hasn’t much changed. Montag’s job requires that any house found with books be burnt to the foundations and the visceral descriptions are heartbreakingly powerful. Eventually, as in all dystopian tales, the protagonist rebels against the system of which he has been a part of his whole life, and sets about changing it. Suffice it to say he fails fairly miserably. But then it wouldn’t be proper dystopia if one man could change anything would it? The writing is simultaneously simple and detailed, powerful and profound. Montag is a well rounded character who grows from being quite vile due to his work, to very likeable due to his rebellion, to pitiable for his failure and eventually commendable for his growth and fortitude. When the novel ends, with a poignant phoenix metaphor, Bradbury makes clear his feelings of the establishment and all that ‘the system’ entails.
In a fun synchronicity I watched The Book Thief immediately after finishing Fahrenheit 451. The book burning parade shown in this film was particularly intense and I cried and cried. That’s probably strange but whatever… Anyway they are both very important texts and very worth the time