At a time when anti-intellectualism has moved from anti-student gripes in old man pubs to a legitimate political talking point (Michael Gove has a lot to answer for) Ray Bradbury’s immortal Fahrenheit 451 circles over the cultural landscape like a wily buzzard. A tale of censorship which has hilariously found itself banned on more than one occasion (in America this was due to a mention that the Bible is one of the texts that finds itself on the pyre, the amount of mental gymnastics that this ban must have taken should have won an Olympic gold) its misleading (and arguably misplaced) status as a byword for the importance of remaining vigilant against the soporific dangers of well-meaning authoritarianism often serves to obscure the vigorous novel hidden behind the warnings.
Since its publication in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 has handily retained its place in the canon of dystopian fiction: more approachable than 1984, not nearly as baroque as A Clockwork Orange. (All three made for equally flamboyant motion pictures) Its longstanding presence on adolescent reading lists makes it no less worthy of adult attention, and in an era when accessibility to books is still regularly denied, whether by jittery school boards or petulant online retailers, its relevance can hardly be disputed.
But like the somnambulant suburbanites who wander the pages of Fahrenheit 451, misremembering their own lives and established history like the hazy contents of dreams, we seem to have forgotten what gives the novel its enduring, prophetic power. It is indeed a story about a world where books are outlawed and burned, but it is also a tale about the value of intellect, the importance of information and the singular, irreplaceable experience of reading books as books; as physical, palpable and precious objects.
Bradbury himself was somewhat bemused at constantly being asked about the book as a parable for the dangers of malign government overreach and the legislation of morality, as he argued that the book was actually about the complicity of the average citizen to allow such overreach to happen due to obsessions with various dulling pleasures (in Fahrenheit 451 it’s a psychedelic all-encompassing version of Eastenders that also seemed to be alarmingly prescient of the clammy grip of Reality tv) a concept that is closer to Huxley’s Brave New World than Orwell’s bleak dystopia. In Bradbury’s own words the novel is “less about Big Brother and more about Little Sister.”
Bradbury is a very visual author and fittingly the strongest parts of the novel are not where characters outline the philosophies of the novel (which can come across occasionally as blunt and didactic) but where he unleashes images like the half-organic mechanical hound of the fire department loping across buildings, sniffing out dissidents with its syringe nose dripping smoking poison that seem to have leapt out of Something Wicked This Way Comes into the more ‘realistic’ novel that Fahrenheit 451 is often held up as. In the chaotic world order of the 21st century where democracy and liberalism seems to be in retreat, Bradbury’s central message that the loss of freedom is as much the fault of the private individual as the interfering government rings just as loud now as it must have in the days of McCarthyism, Fahrenheit 451 still burns unnervingly bright.