Four Fifty One

When the young Ray Bradbury was thrashing about for a suitable title for the novel he was then working on (its working title at the time was pretty boring — “The Fireman”), he made a call to his local fire department in Los Angeles to ask at what temperature paper books ignite.

“Four hundred and fifty-one degrees Fahrenheit,” the fire chief told him. “Perfect!” Bradbury replied. So that became the title of the dystopian, science-fiction book published in 1953, which was destined to sell more than 10 million copies and make Bradbury famous: Fahrenheit 451.

The fireman of the working title and hero of the book is Guy Montag, a thirty-year-old, married, childless man who lives in a nameless American city sometime around the mid-21st century and whose job it is to burn down homes known to contain books.

Possession of books in Montag’s world is a crime against the State, so firemen use their powerful hoses to spray, not water, but kerosene, then set each place ablaze. Sometimes with the book-loving owner choosing to remain inside.

For ten years Montag was proud of his profession. He bragged: “It’s fine work. Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ‘em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That’s our official slogan.”

But slowly, initiated by a chance encounter with an inquisitive and spirited young woman in his neighborhood, Montag undergoes a kind of religious conversion. He begins to doubt. What’s worse, he begins to hoard and read books himself.

His boss, the fire chief, named Beatty, becomes suspicious and harangues him:

“Ask yourself,” Beatty says to Montag, “What do people want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s what we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.

“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo,” Beatty shouts. “Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. … Fire is bright and fire is clean.”

Montag’s wife Mildred, who, like most everyone else, is addicted to the State-sanctioned entertainment programs she watches all day on the huge, flat-screen TVs that cover three of the four walls of their living room, ultimately informs on him and wordlessly leaves him. He flees for his life. (I won’t spoil the ending for you.)

Neil Gaiman, who wrote the Introduction to the edition of Fahrenheit 451 I read, calls the book “Bradbury’s love letter to books.” I totally agree.

Like Montag, I’ve come to learn that books are indeed dangerous. Good books make people think. When people think, they begin to question. And when people question aloud, they can no longer be part of the passive, docile, silent herd. So, historically, authoritarian leaders (such as Donald Trump is proving himself to be) view books as a threat to their power and control. Books, therefore, they feel, must be devalued, put down, or even destroyed.

My friends will disagree with me, of course, because my friends are book lovers, serious serial readers of good books, members in good standing of long-standing book groups. But I believe that books as we’ve known them could be on their way out, that reading good books is already considered passé.

I sometimes fear these beloved friends of mine may be living too close to the trees to see the forest. I suspect that the forest out there is beginning to burn. (Think about it: Would a predominately book-loving and -valuing electorate choose as president a man who never bothers to read books?)

I believe, in fact, that my book-loving friends and I are a dying breed. Therefore, part of our our legacy must be to actively advocate for book reading among the generations we leave behind. We should take to the streets (if only figuratively speaking) with banners that read, “Don’t let books die!” and “Don’t let anyone destroy good books!”

When Fahrenheit 451 came out in October 1953, at the height of the Cold War and the chillingly mean-spiritedness of the McCarthy era (which, sadly, have parallels to today), it received a glowing review in The New York Times. This review, by Orville Prescott, certainly helped launch the book’s success. Prescott wrote (in part):

“Ray Bradbury’s basic message is a plea for direct, personal experience rather than perpetual, synthetic entertainment; for individual thought, action and responsibility; for the great tradition of independent thinking and artistic achievement symbolized in books.”

So if it’s been a while (high school?) since you’ve read Fahrenheit 451; or if you, like me, had never read it before (shame on me), now is the time to reach for it, read it, and be moved to action by it.

14 thoughts on “Four Fifty One”

  1. You’ve inspired me Bonnie! I never read it either, but I’m going to suggest it to my book club. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. As a card carrying booklover and reading evangelist, I love this post. Like you, I only read Fahrenheit 451 rather recently and wondered why it took me so long. I was a huge Bradbury fan and during the years I lived in Santa Barbara never missed his appearances at the Writer’s Conference there. I agree that it’s time for a new audience to discover the warnings in this provocative book.

  3. Wonderful Bonnie. Somehow I have never read Bradbury’s masterpiece but I will now. And I think you make the point inferentially that, as a culture, we read when we are moved to reflect and find meaning in nuance and metaphor. Right now, our culture seems consumed by easy entertainment, scandal and anger. Hopefully, this will change again for the better.

  4. Dear Bon,

    A fantastic post and one the needs to be heard over and over again. The single thing that makes me pessimist for the future is the decline of reading. Bradbury was prescient when he imagined wall-sized TVs. In his book, Mildred desires a third wall of TV, so that eventually she will be able to live in a TV box. The TV she already has is able to make her a character in its shows. Is that what lies ahead, or is it already here?

    Many young people freely admit they hate to read, and that they have read few, if any, books. The reality is most do not have the necessary attention span. They avoid the things that challenge, preferring to seek out only that which affirms. It is dispiriting.

    You, and all those who agree with you, just have to keep encouraging the love of reading and hope for the best.


    1. Dispiriting’s the word, Paul dear. Yes, we who love books and reading mustn’t give up spreading the word of their benefits. Just imagine where we’d be if it weren’t for good books? — LU, BB xx

  5. Well said as always Bonnie. I have been trying to embrace E books but having a hard time. Visual and auditory input is very different. I miss the physicality of turning the pages, the feel and texture of the paper and musing on the cover illustration. Even the typeface sets a certain tone to the book, I too must admit I never read 451 and have put it on my list. Odd because I was a big Bradbury fan. Was it not required reading for us at PVRHS? Or maybe it was too controversial for those seemingly quite little villages.I see my high school students reading it now and I often refer to it in ceramics class as an easy way to remember combustion temperature.

    1. I don’t think it was required for us in our high school, Barbara. Otherwise, you and I would have surely read it! I remember reading 1984 and Animal Farm, but not F.451. Well, it’s a better read now, by far, I’m sure, because it’s so timely for us all. Bradbury was a prophet.

  6. Oh Bonnie! What a column! I remember Bradbury but you challenge me to read again! Tou’ve given us a lot to think about!
    Now…back to my book…..

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