Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451
by Ray Bradbury

On World Book day, volunteers are asked to give away free books. I guess there’s an official sign-up, where the volunteer is given the books, which are donated by the publisher, and distributes them according to assignment, but I didn’t know how to go about joining up. So I simply looked over the list of books selected for the 2013 giveaway, chose  one of my favorites, bought a new copy, and gave it away to a woman I met at a bus stop in the neighborhood. The book I chose was Fahrenheit 451. Of course, having been reminded of it, I had to go find my own well-worn copy and re-read it.

I first read this book in high school in the 1970’s and it blew my mind. I’m not a science-fiction fan, but this didn’t read like sci-fi. It seemed more like a realistic contemporary novel, with only a few slightly unfamiliar bits of technology, and those not so outlandish as to be off-putting, but perhaps just the latest new twists on familiar gadgets. Without the usual trappings and barriers of sci-fi getting in my way, I was easily drawn directly into the story. Every few years since, I find myself picking up this book again, and every time I have the same reaction. It’s always contemporary, always familiar, always an ongoing great conversation that I’m longing to get in on.

It’s those deeply packed conversations that sucked me in most deeply. I wanted to go inside this book and jump into every conversation between the characters. Whatever subject they were discussing, I always had thoughts of my own boiling over inside me, so that I was longing to speak up, to agree or expand or contradict. I got the same feeling I so often had in real life, eavesdropping on a great conversation at a nearby table of people I didn’t know, wishing I could just lean over and put my two cents into the mix. They reminded me of the sort of conversations that I’d seen happen on occasions when my sisters and dad got all wound up and began taking apart the universe and putting it back together again. Philosophy, politics, entertainment, culture, society, the meaning of life, all explored, delighted in and argued over.

I’ve occasionally read other dystopian future-world sci-fi, featuring opressive government, book-burning, and apocolyptic war. Usually these books have struck me as unreal. Everything in their world boils down to just one thing. There’s no room for messy ordinary daily life, because everyone is boxed into the same situation. It’s all about Big Brother, and if only we defeat him, the world will return to normal. Fahrenheit 451 might have been that sort of book, in which opressive government censorship was the whole story, or in which vapid empty culture was the whole story, or in which chronic threat of war was the whole story. But there is a whole world going on here, with individual concerns as tangled and varied as the variety of characters. Maybe that’s why this is the one book in that genre which never wears out for me.

From Clarisse’s family talking about the meanings of things on the porch late at night, to Mildred and her friends rehashing the latest TV reality show, to an old woman here or an old man there engrossed in the quiet pleasure of hidden books, to teenagers dashing around sports fields and driving fast cars, to firemen smoking over card games, there’s a sense of individual life always going on behind and around the edges of the plot.  It’s not a one-note ballad about book-burning.

And yet books remain at the center of it all. We keep coming back to the books.  Why do books matter so much that some people will die for them while others will destroy for them?

As Faber says, it’s not the book itself, the physical material object, that matters. The book  is only a receptacle, just one of many possible receptacles, for the important things that we don’t want to lose or forget. What matters isn’t the pages and ink and covers.  The ideas, the understandings, the experiences, the hard-earned wisdom that came from so many lives lived — all of this matters. All of this is important. It could be shared through good conversation, through the deepening of understanding that comes through words passed around on a front porch. It could be shared through the ways we interact with each other in community and family life. It could be expressed in the kinds of art we produce, the kinds of houses we build, the kinds of laws we support. A society which was able to express its important ideas in so many other ways might have no need for books. It might function perfectly well as an oral culture.

But in real life, we know too well that people forget. We lose track of our most important insights. We forget to talk about them. We forget to practise them in daily living. We’re not going out and looking for them because we’ve forgotten they ever existed. This is why we need a back-up memory system that can help us simply stumble across truths that we’re not actively looking for. Books do this job for us.  They hold onto things we might need someday.

Filed away in books, our important things are kept in a safe place, so that one day when we need to be reminded of them, they will be there. We open the book and rediscover all over again what we had neglected and forgotten. Sometimes we discover for the first time what we never knew at all, whatever our own daily life failed to show us. The books matter because they sit patiently and wait for us until we’re ready to open them. A wise human being may move out of our life, or even die, before we hear what he or she might have taught us. But the book will just go on waiting for us — so long as we don’t make the mistake of destroying it in the meantime.

Favorite quotes:

  • Most of us can’t rush around, talking to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book.
  • We’ll have time to put things into ourselves. And someday, after it sets into us a long time, it’ll come out of our hands and our mouths. And a lot of it will be wrong, but just enough of it will be right. We’ll just start walking around today and see the world and the way the world really looks. I want to see everything now. And while none of it will be me when it goes in, after awhile it’ll gather together inside and it’ll be me.
  • Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there…Grandfather’s been dead all these years, but if you lifted my skull, by God, in the convolutions of my brain you’d find the big ridges of his thumbprint.