My oldest kid is in high school now. (Sometimes I can’t believe it!) She is excited about growing up, and I’m excited (and to be honest a little fearful) of the ride she taking us on. Since I like to read, one of the cool things about this “parenting teenagers ride” is following her in the assigned English literature. You see, I was not particularly interested in English class when I was in school. It’s one of my big regrets. But now I can right that wrong.
Over the summer her teacher assigned Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, one of the few books I actually remember reading in school. It’s a story of a fireman named Guy Montag who is a respectable 9 to 5 working stiff in a very strange world—a world where firemen start fires instead of fighting them. The kinds of fires he’s called to start are emergencies to incinerate books whenever a call comes in. The job doesn’t bother him in the least until he meets a young lady who is different than anyone he has ever met. She is striking to the reader as abnormally normal. Her life and family are typical for what the reader experiences in today’s world, but Guy doesn’t know what to think of her. When she mysteriously disappears, it rocks his concept of normal reality that sets him on a personal journey of discovery, resistance, and even resurrection.
I’ve read enough good fiction as an adult to realize that, at least for me, reading a book as an adult is a completely different experience than reading it as a kid. My younger self just could not soak up all a book has to offer. I suppose some of that can be chalked up to a more leisurely pensive pace a non-student can afford to take. But I know that’s not the only reason I get more out of literature nowadays. So with anticipation I recently plowed through F451 for the second time in my life, this go-around as a grown-up. Let’s just say I was not disappointed. Here’s why.
First, for a dystopian novel written more than 60 years ago within an American culture that seems further and further away from the post-modern pluralistic present, F451 has aged remarkably well. I guess that’s why it’s still required reading for high school freshmen. Not only is the fictional future world still imaginable, some of what Bradbury forewarned seems to have come true. His future, while not quite now, seems a lot less distant than it must have seems to the average person living in 1950’s American suburbia. For example, the ubiquity of the video screen is now a reality.
Second, many of the themes of F451 are still fears we carry. Who in their right mind is not more than a little wary of:
- Censorship of books, especially when it is self-imposed
- Punishment of the free exchange of ideas through print, broadcast, or face-to-face conversation
- Technology so advanced the police always get their man
- Prospect of war making us numb to our shared humanity and the need for justice
- Loss of history, literature, and ideas as “human books” die and take their knowledge with them
- Constant availability and consumption of entertainment inadvertently leading to hopelessness, depression, and alienation
- Peaceful and conscientious dissidents weeded out by neighbors
- And of course, the systematic burning of books, not because of their content per se, but because they have contents
Third, the onion quality of the book. F451 is both an action-oriented and a provocative commentary on a possible future. It appeals to the reader on multiple levels–peal back one and discover another you didn’t see before. That is why I think it lends itself to the stage and the screen, and to repeated readings. Before her class started, my daughter and I took some time to discuss the various themes of the book. The experience was like climbing down a rabbit hole. Try to put your finger on the major theme of the book. What is the author’s main point? This turns out to be a surprisingly difficult question because the themes are tightly weaved together. For instance, if we cannot agree that the mechanical hound is an important literary device that carries the story along through terrorizing dissidents and symbolizing the futility of resistance, then it will be hard to justify the argument that censorship is strongest when compelled within a community by those who wield power.
Fourth, dystopian fiction has morphed into a successful genre marketed to teenagers. The Hunger Games and Divergent series are just the latest iterations that continue this trend of book, movie, and eventually obsessive cultural saturation. F451, if not at the head of this stream, is near the headwaters. In this sense Bradbury, with his F451, is a grandfather of the kinds of stories a generation is now being reared on into adulthood.
As a Christian, F451 intrigues me in its liberal use of biblical references and imagery. The astute reader will recognize obvious references to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, and images from Revelation (the Tree of Life, p. 158) and Genesis (the Tower of Babel, p. 35). More subtle allusions include baptism (Montag crossing the river) and Satan (Captain Beatty twisting Scripture to deceive Montag). After reading and studying the Bible for 20+ years, I couldn’t help but notice how Bradbury, an unbeliever, is nevertheless respectfully and reverently conversant with the Bible. That is not a rare thing today. What is rare is the expectation the author has of his audience not only to pick up on shadow the Bible casts on the story, but also to sympathize with the spirit in which he casts that shadow. Nowadays many people hate the Bible without really knowing how beautiful or important it is to humanity’s history and future. I can only hope for and work toward the day when books like F451 are appreciated for their Christ-influenced vision as they once were for America.
If you’re looking for a more traditional book review, summary, or analysis, there are plenty of links below to point you in the right direction. If you’re like me and read F451 years ago as a clueless freshman, do yourself a favor. Read it again, perhaps with a teen or group of teens. I suspect you’ll find yourself in stimulating and formative discussions, perhaps in the role of a wise sage to another.
Video book summary:
Audiobook on Youtube:
Discussion with Ray Bradbury about the book:
The full-length movie: