Tonight, I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for the first time. I don’t usually read dystopian fiction, it’s usually too depressing. But, I did actually enjoy this one. I read it all in one sitting, which I think deepened the story’s emotional weight for me.
It’s about a man named Montag, a fireman in the future (the future being a hundred years after 1953) who start fires instead of putting them out. He and his comrades burn books and arrest people who read. To the government of this dystopian society, reading people think too much to be safe. Most citizens live for entertainment and spend their free time running away from reality. But one night, Montag becomes curious about these people who read, so he steals a book from a fire. At first, he doesn’t understand it. A former English professor who helps Montag sets his mind right about the power of books thus:
“Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”
He’s saying books help us makes sense of the world, but only if we’re willing to think about what they say. As Montag starts to think about what he read in his stolen copy of the Bible, he finds the key that sets him free from his entertaining prison. He leaves the city pursued as a criminal and joins a group of people like himself, who started reading and thinking again. They remember the texts of a few books and recite them to each other. These men and women formed the oddest-looking book covers I have ever imagined, and because of their books they were strong enough to face reality.
Reading books isn’t like drinking a magic potion that suddenly makes the world make sense. Books only open mental doors that we must walk through by thinking about what we’ve read. When books become past tense, we stop reading and thinking and start chasing happiness. Like Mr. Bradbury’s characters, we will ignore calamitous realities and entertain ourselves into their graves.
Mr. Bradbury describes a world full of people who don’t read or think or love or live or give anymore. They run and run and run looking for happiness and ignoring pain. Mr. Bradbury reminds us that books help us face and make sense of pain. The Bible, the book Montag found, depicts real life, life through God’s eyes. In light of my knowledge of that Book, I say Mr. Bradbury is right that books are vital to the human experience whether we read or listen to others tell us the stories. Without them, we cease to think, we cease to love, indeed, we cease to be human.
So, thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for the reminder.