Fahrenheit 451

Book cover: 'Fahrenheit 451'
Ray Bradbury
Ballantine Books
Number of pages: 
179 pages
Grade / Age level: 

Fahrenheit 451 is on the reading list of almost every high school in America, and with good reason. It is thought provoking and hip. There are reasons to love this book and reasons to worry about it. It is Bradbury's reaction against censorship and the blossoming of television. Some of the things he writes about have come true in our time, which makes his story all the more intriguing.

First the story: it is in the future, but not too far off, with global war looming. The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman. Books have been banned and anytime a cache of them is found, the firemen are dispatched to burn them. As the story develops the reader finds out why books are illegal. Evidently in the past, some special interest groups wanted certain things out of books so they wouldn't offend people. As more and more of these things were censored out of books, they became insipid. Television became an alternative to books and the focal point of the lives of most people. The ideas in real books are seen as dangerous, as possibly making people think or feel, so they must be destroyed.

Guy is seemingly content until he meets a young girl whose family reads books and actually speaks to each other. This attracts him and the reader finds out he has a stash of books in his house that he has taken from various burns. He is also very moved by a woman who dies in a fire intended to burn her books. He starts to desire books more and more and finally, after he scandalously reads poetry to his wife and her friends, he is doomed and his house is burned. He tries to escape the law and gets helps from an old professor. He finally makes it out of the city and finds a whole community of "books," people who have memorized books, including the Bible, so that when the great war comes and people need books and their beauty again, they will be available. Just as he meets these book people, the bombs begin to drop.

In the edition that I read, Bradbury writes a 25-years-later "coda" about the public's reaction to his story. For example, he has had feminists tell him that he should have more strong female roles in his stories. They do not see that they are doing just what he describes as causing the demise of books in this story. He finds it ironic that special interest group publishers without his permission have censored his book. What they were trying to cleanse was his language. There is some swearing in the book, but it does not detract from the genius of the story. Guy Montag longs more and more for what people had in books, for the beauty of words and ideas, and ultimately, for the chance to be human again.

This story would be good for a high school junior or senior who is ready for serious discussion on the themes of censorship and the movement of society toward technology. With more and more youth turning to visual technology, and especially interactive visual technology as Bradbury describes, this story is a great testament to keeping literature and the ideas of the ages present in our home schools.

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