Thursday, 25 August 2011

More than one way to burn a book

I first read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury many years ago but picked it out on audiobook at the library because of a conversation on an e-mail list. I think I probably had a much stronger memory of the film of the book so it was interesting to hear the full story again.

The book is a dystopian vision of a future in which war is accepted as inevitable, people are kept passive by wall to wall television and books are viewed as subversive and are forbidden. Firemen are now the people who destroy books. I get the impression that Guy Montag, our protagonist, was already asking himself quiet questions about his work and his society, even before he meets the unconventional Clarisse, otherwise he would have dismissed her as crazy and not been intrigued by her. The government really knew where the danger was, considering that just a brief glance at a book is enough to lead the fireman astray. It almost feels like the wrong approach, we all know the best way to make something more attractive is to outlaw it, surely it was within their power simply to engender disinterest, so that reading simply withered away. So Montag starts to steal books, and hide them in his house, eventually revealing his secret to his wife and attempting to read and understand the books. And so he finds himself increasingly at odds with his boss, his wife and society in general. In such a society you cannot just disagree a bit and still live there, so his only option is to run, and run quite literally when the very unpleasant robot dog is set on his trail.

What I found most interesting about the story was the way television had come to dominate people's lives, with huge screens covering all the walls of their living rooms, in many ways the most prophetic aspect of the book. I found myself mainly musing on how difficult life would be without books, their education system seemed to consist of acquiring skills but not knowledge or understanding, and wondering how you reach a point where people stop asking questions about things, stopped wanting to know and understand. The book is also making a statement about how an authoritarian government controls, not so much by fear and violence, but by apathy; feed people what you make them think they want and they will just accept the rest. The setting fire to the books aspect of the story is in some ways merely symbolic of the control and the crushing of ideas. It was first published in 1953 but in 1979 Ray Bradbury wrote a postscript to the book which was included on the audiobook and was most fascinating. In it he rails against what he sees as creeping modern day censorship, from political correctness to the expunging of swear words, and the dumbing down of literature for the consumption of schoolchildren. Considering that Banned Books Week is coming up at the end of September his words are very apposite.

"There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian/ Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist / Zionist / Seventh-day Adventist / Women's Lib / Republican /Mattachine / FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse….Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever."

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