At 190 pages, “Fahrenheit 451” is the shortest book it has ever taken me so long to read — about a two-month effort — but I liked it.
It takes place in an undated future, where the world is on the brink of war. It would seem that few notice, though, because they’re constantly plugged in to their entertainment. Music is piped directly into their ears, and soap operas, interactive reality shows, news of nothing and, occasionally, conversations with empty-headed friends are plastered across wall-sized television screens. They are all connected, but no one is making a connection. “Fahrenheit 451” was published in 1951, so obviously, Ray Bradbury didn’t know about about iPods and earbuds, Skype or flat-screen TVs, American Idol and 24-hour cable news networks, complete with constant viewer comments via Twitter. And I think that makes it all the more eerie.
And really, it was creepy enough to begin with, what with its society where firemen’s sole responsibility is to burn books, and people who dare to read or think are prosecuted or killed. This is the world of Guy Montag, a fireman who hesitantly dips his toe in the contraband arena of books only to find himself falling, fearfully and headfirst, into new ways of thinking and viewing the world around him until his newfound obsession puts him on the run.
The version I checked out from the library was the 40th anniversary edition, which included a forward and introduction by Bradbury. And thank goodness for that, because as much as I ultimately liked the story, it never quite lived up to a phrase that piqued my interest in the first place, describing Montag as “a book-burner who suddenly discovers that books are flesh-and-blood ideas and cry out, silently, when put to the torch.” The sentiment is there, but the prose never quite lives up to that line.
I started reading this the day after I quit reading Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughter House Five.” I made it about 10 pages in that before throwing in the towel. It may be a great story, but the writing style wasn’t hitting me right, and I’ve grown to have little patience for things I’m not enjoying. So it’s a good thing that I started with this edition of “Fahrenheit,” because if I hadn’t read the forward and the introduction and fallen a teensy bit in love with Bradbury’s voice…I might not have stuck with it, either.
That’s not to say the writing itself is bad or unenjoyable — far from it — but there are some stylistic choices before the action-packed ending that just set me on edge and flirted with my boredom button from time to time. There is a lot of dialogue with no attribution tags, and while it’s never hard to know who’s saying what, it sometimes makes for choppy reading. Ditto a few moments where — in what I can only imagine is an attempt to show the frenzied pace of this world — it seems like sometimes random words are just tossed rapid-fire at the reader.
So it was good to have that buffer between books. It was good to read Bradbury’s words on growing up and writing stories and the process that took him from a few short stories to this short novel. I think it was his passion for books in those 19 pages that carried me through the occasional thoughts of returning the book (and saving some late fees) unread. And I’m grateful for that, because, as Bradbury himself points out:
You don’t have to burn books, do you, if the world starts to fill up with nonreaders, nonlearners, non-knowers? If the world wide-screen-basketballs and -footballs itself to drown in MTV, no Beattys are needed to ignite the kerosene or hunt the reader.
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