No book has ever had as much continuing influence on me as Ray Bradbury’s brilliant short novel, “Fahrenheit 451.”
You can’t understand me without knowing the intellectual and emotional roads I’ve traveled with this book since I was a teen-ager. And I’m not sure how you can consider yourself an educated person if you haven’t read this work of genius and thought deeply about it.
When I first read the book, I was in either the eighth or ninth grade. I was drawn by the plot, because I read a lot of science fiction — pretty much everything in our school library. It took me years to discover the deeper layers of complexity that Bradbury wove into the book. And it’s those deeper layers that keep changing me.
I’m going through a struggle right now that keeps bringing to my mind a key crisis for the protagonist. I can’t get it out of my head lately. I experienced exactly this same struggle when I made the huge decision to get out of politics — and I’m at the same sort of crisis point right now. I handled that crisis poorly. I must handle this one in a smarter way.
Most people today interpret “Fahrenheit 451” as a book about censorship, but that is a rather pedestrian and shallow reading of the book. (Bradbury himself vehemently said it was not intended to be about censorship.)
It seems obvious to me that the book is about one person’s struggle to learn truth and then to respond to what he has learned — his struggle to get past the ways in which his culture had brainwashed him into believing half-truths. And more than anything, it’s about his struggle to make changes in his life when he realized that what he had been taught was a whitewashed account of how to be a self-actualized human being.
Guy Montag is a fireman, but he lives in a near-future in which books aren’t legal. It’s important to note that it’s not just books containing certain ideas which are banned. All books are banned, because it’s been decided that access to all these contradictory ideas just confuses everyone. In the place of books, television has become an all-consuming passion for the people. They are fed a steady diet of intellectually vapid entertainment that keeps their thoughts shallow. (Sound familiar?)
Because books are banned — and because all buildings are fireproof by now — firemen now exist to enforce the laws against books. Montag and his fellow firemen get reports of illegal books and they show up at houses and burn the books. Montag loves his work and thinks he’s part of a great system — until he faces a crisis. He sees a woman die for her books. Then he steals a few books and starts trying to figure out how to think for himself.
Montag’s wife, Mildred, is lost in the shallowness of popular culture. She’s absorbed in her television shows and shallow friends. The two of them don’t even know each other any more. She’s drifting slowly toward killing herself because of her nihilistic emptiness. Guy begs her to join him in the journey he’s starting — to see whether there is value in ideas and thinking for one’s own self:
“I’ve never asked for much from you in all these years, but I ask it now, I plead for it. We’ve got to start somewhere here, figuring out why we’re in such a mess, you and the medicine at night, and the car, and me and my work. We’re heading right for the cliff, Millie. God, I don’t want to go over. This isn’t going to be easy. We haven’t anything to go on, but maybe we can piece it out and figure it and help each other. I need you so much right now, I can’t tell you. If you love me at all you’ll put up with this, twenty-four, forty-eight hours, that’s all I ask, then it’ll be over. I promise, I swear! And if there is something here, just one little thing out of a whole mess of things, maybe we can pass it on to someone else.”
As Montage spiraled into crisis — trying to read seriously for the first time in his life and trying to figure out what was wrong with his life and with his society — he pulled away from his colleagues at the fire station. He knew he had to change — even though he was a babe in understanding what he was reading and in thinking for himself — and he knew he had to get away from the work he had been doing. He felt he had to change but he didn’t know how to change or what to do with himself. When he started calling in sick, his fire chief — Capt. Beatty — came to visit him. Beatty secretly knew what was going on, but he was trying to give Montag time to get over his curiosity about books and get back to “normal”:
“Well, Montag. Will you take another, later shift, today? Will we see you tonight perhaps?”
“I don’t know,” said Montag.
“What?” Beatty looked faintly surprised.
Montag shut his eyes. “I’ll be in later. Maybe.”
“We’d certainly miss you if you didn’t show,” said Beatty, putting his pipe in his pocket
I’ll never come in again, thought Montag.
“Get well and keep well,” said Beatty.
This is exactly the way I felt in the days when I had realized I had to get away from politics. I had political clients who depended on me — people who were giving me large checks to do their work — and I was essentially shutting down. At the time, I described it — to the few who I trusted well enough to talk about it — as feeling as though some idealistic and principled part of me was going on strike. Something in me was “calling in sick” every day. Something in me refused to continue to be part of something which I had come to recognize as immoral — even though I didn’t know which way to go instead.
I’m at a similar crisis point now. I know I have to find a solution, because something in me is pushing me to “go on strike” in the same way that I did when I left politics. Because I ignored the warning signs back then, I know what I’ll do if I don’t deal with this. Something in me is going to sabotage myself. I’m going to destroy my ability to keep doing the work I’m doing now. Since I’ve seen how that goes when I try to ignore it, I have a great incentive to handle it better this time.
My crisis isn’t the same as Montag’s, of course. I know how to think for myself. I’ve read plenty of books. But it’s similar in ways I’ve talked about recently.
If I don’t make some smart decisions to put myself where I need to be, I’m going to make some bad decisions instead. I’m certain of that. I’ll make myself sick. I’ll quit my jobs without alternatives in place. I’ll sabotage myself until I’m to the point that I have no choice but to make a major change.
Every time I read the book, it breaks my heart that Mildred doesn’t choose to move forward with him — that she chooses to betray him instead. I understand Montag’s desperate need for a partner while he’s working his future out, so that’s heartbreaking to me.
But Montag finds some help in learning to think — from a scared and retired old university professor — and when his decision point comes, he makes the right decision.
Montag had to give up the life of comfort and respect which his world had given him, but he gained something inside — in his mind and in his heart — that his world could never give.
He found meaning and hope for a different future.
As the book ends, it’s clear Montag’s life isn’t going to be easy from then on, but he’s going to be with like-minded — and like-hearted — people who also think for themselves. He’s given up what the world values in exchange for something far more valuable to him.
Decades after I first read the book, Bradbury’s brilliant voice is still pushing me to do the same for myself — regardless of the cost.