Far more disturbing than the book-burnings in Fahrenheit 451 is Bradbury's prophetic understanding that television would replace print media. In a scene of horrific black comedy, we realize the citizens of a not-so-future America don't just watch TV, they conflate the images on-screen with their own lives and achieve an entirely audio-visual media existence requiring no thought and little action.
While Bradbury owes something to Orwell and Huxley, his dystopic vision is unique. 1984 imagines a world of rational subjugation and Brave New World one of debilitating hedonism—Fahrenheit 451 presents a more believable mediated culture. In 1984 books are destroyed; in Brave New World people watch TV; in Fahrenheit 451 books are replaced by television programs. There is no outcry because as long as they're fed and safe, the populace doesn't want intellectual stimulation, or any stimulation not mediated generically (Guy Montag and his wife cannot have sexual relations without the aid of prescription medication).
But what's lost is far more than books. Guy Montag and his fellow firemen are government employees who destroy all books by burning them. Unlike his comrades, Montag isn't mindless, and eventually hides books and reads them. He meets a girl who introduces him to an underground movement committed to preserving the content of books, and before long he's memorizing important passages in Western literature, including the book of Ecclesiastes. He realizes what is really in danger—not words printed on a page, but the humanizing force of art and thought, a sense of the sublime.
Ironically, the sublime is usually confined to experiences not able to be articulated by speech or writing. The sublime refers to anything of high quality, whether philosophical, religious, moral or aesthetic. It's the soul of art affecting us primally, awakening our spirituality through means other than the intellectual. This is the concept Montag discovers through his encounters with great literature, and that he eventually risks his life to preserve.
In the novel, citizens accept the loss of books with little or no resistance. What they get—security, mindlessness, entertainment—is enough to placate them. Montag, however, is motivated by a wilder, more sane, more human impulse—the desire to become really, truly human. Montag's resistance of mindless capitulation is Bradbury's hymn to human nobility, and a warning to a society that has largely abandoned those ideals.
Fahrenheit 451 is Bradbury's own understanding of the sublime, evidenced through his beautiful prose which makes his nightmare vision so chilling and compelling. Yet it's his hope and conviction—that humans will not allow mindlessness and authoritarianism to eclipse beauty entirely—he leaves with us, not simple resignation or despair. One of the best stories of the last 50 years, this is Bradbury's masterpiece and a great American novel.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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