It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.
— Opening lines of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, 1953.
When Amazon launched its e-reader in 2007, they gave it an improbable name. It's possible that the marketing men responsible for the Kindle had a fine sense of irony, but more likely they’d never read Fahrenheit 451. A central theme of Ray Bradbury's celebrated novel is the marginalisation of literature by leisure technology. For those who treasure the book, the image of flames licking at the margins of their reading material has associations that are unlikely to do much for the Kindle's sales figures.
Fahrenheit 451 was written in nine days in 1953, developed from an unpublished short story penned some three years earlier. Its author was already an established science fiction writer through the publication of The Martian Chronicles in 1950, but the genre was yet to reach an audience large enough to make its practitioners wealthy. Bradbury had just become a father for the second time1, and was out of pocket, while at the same time finding a homeful of infants unconducive to writing. He discovered that the Powell Library at UCLA rented typewriters at ten cents per half-hour2, and so one of the 20th Century's greatest dystopian novels was composed in a pantheon of American academe3 at a total cost of $9.80 to its impecunious creator.
The title of the book refers to the temperature at which books burn4. In the world of Fahrenheit 451, firemen no longer put out fires. Their job is to start them, and specifically to destroy books and collections of books in order to suppress the seditious ideas that they inculcate. The central character, Guy Montag, is a fireman who uncritically accepts the terms of his job at the start of the narrative. Montag has never read any of the proscribed literature before, but a series of encounters and revelatory experiences rapidly convert him first into a surreptitious reader and finally into a renegade within a disintegrating society.
The characters that surround Montag shape his forming ideas, but also stand as icons for the book's duelling propositions in the mind of the reader. Clarisse projects innocent wonderment and represents freedom from the conditioning of an intolerant society. Her antithesis is Montag's wife Mildred (unnecessarily renamed Linda in the film of the book), who is so beguiled by the superficial trappings of modern living that she reveals her own husband's secret bookstore to the authorities. Beatty is a highly rational and educated firechief, though one whose self-justification has become so meticulous that it excludes simple humanity. Professor Faber is a voice of reason detached from the action, imploring a community to look at itself and reassess its habituated and distorted values5.
Fahrenheit 451 is arguably one of the most misinterpreted books of all time. It is widely characterised as a polemic against state control and censorship as a political instrument. However, a different message is revealed by a careful reading and confirmed by reference to the author's representations. The government and institutions of Fahrenheit 451 are reactive organisations, doing nothing more than formalising the choice of the populace. Bradbury’s diatribe is instead against the small-minded masses who crave and absorb lightweight ideas in preference to the challenging and thought-provoking demands of literature. Fahrenheit 451 is about the tyranny of trivial people in the universe of writing.
Compared with some of his peers, Bradbury is rarely perspicuous in predicting the technology of the future, but in Fahrenheit 451 he scores some disconcerting bullseyes. The domestic environment is pervaded by communication devices that seem both personally engaging and intelligent, but which are really heartless and vacuous. These include large-format flat-screen television receivers that take up whole walls, and aural inserts that communicate intimately with the wearer, drawing him or her into an enclosed world, while at the same time stifling social relationships. We can be thankful that no literal embodiment of the mechanical hound has yet come to pass, but robots designed to corral and suppress the general public while hunting and destroying individual miscreants are perhaps no longer as unthinkable as they were when the book was written.
Bradbury is now in his nineties, and at last his vociferous and demonstrative public image is becoming less prominent. His technophobia is ironic given his futuristic genre: he never learned to drive and he doesn't own a computer. His views on the Internet are ambivalent and reasonably so, since the same space is occupied by both revelators and sophists, and of course also by cohorts of self-important people of little consequence. This last group's influence is dominant through quantity and not quality, and Bradbury is among those who characterise the internet as a battleground between a thoughtful minority and a thoughtless majority, much as the world of Fahrenheit 451 is6. A striking characteristic of Bradbury's life is that the very people against whom he railed, the self-aggrandising trivialisers of intelligent communication, have consistently provided him with a stage on which to expound his views, while at the same time portraying him as reactionary. Bradbury never was that. Instead, he evoked the most powerful depiction ever written of a world in which writing is reduced to the vestigial communication of essential fact and the literary spirit is crushed by an unimaginative and mediocre horde.