Continuing my run of thoroughly depressing dystopian lit, this manicure was inspired by the latest book I’ve read in service of my friends’ reading challenge, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Banned books was the theme, although I actually couldn’t find it on any roundups of the usual verboten subjects. I’ve no doubt it’s been banned, though, in pockets all across the world, time and time again, staggering irony notwithstanding. I think Fahrenheit 451 will always be a lightning rod for that kind of attention, though I couldn’t find any major examples. But I did think an entire novel about the violent destruction of written material and, by extension, the very essence of critical thought would more than suffice for the purposes of this challenge prompt.
Along with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (the super feelgood book I’m reading right now) I read Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in grade 9. And I understood the import of the underlying themes of both about as well as you would imagine, which is to say I was utterly clueless. “Well, that’s bad,” I naively thought, “you shouldn’t burn books.” And that’s about as deep as my critical assessment went of a world in which the written or recorded word has been banned, mindless reality TV reigns supreme and squadrons of “firemen” are dispatched to the homes of uncooperative citizens to violently torch their secret libraries. I’m actually rather ashamed at how little thought I gave this all-too plausible nightmare, often a problem with material that has been assigned as school work – school books = ultimate boredom in most matriculating minds.
But one thing that hasn’t changed between then and now is I still don’t like Fahrenheit 451. A large part of the problem I have with the novel lies with its protagonist, a by-the-books (pun intended) fireman by the name of Montag in the midst of a major identity crisis – after a chance encounter with a quirky neighbour named Clarisse, a young woman filled to the brim with all of the whos, whats, wheres and whens sorely absent from Montag’s sterile life, he begins to question his purpose as a fireman, and indeed the very purpose of humanity itself. If it sounds like weighty stuff, that’s because it is, and Montag barrels into his new role as a rebel agitator with very little care or forethought, dragging literally everyone into his unhinged, treasonous orbit – a kindly old academic, his deeply disassociated wife and his boss, the fire chief. With the exception of the old academic, who simply has the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, these are terrible, craven people (maybe not Beatty, the scripture, prose and poetry-quoting police chief who willingly walks into his own demise) and they deserve their fiery ends.
But might Montag not also deserve such an end simply for being such such an unrelentingly insufferable know-it-all? I mean, sure, you’ve got the violent autocrats on one side, the sort of people who use a robot called the Hound, a kind of euthanasia machine on legs, to unilaterally mete out their warped vision of justice, and on the other you’ve got a guy who’s really just overly enthusiastic about a thing he only just learned about yesterday, but somehow, the newbie is worse. Montag is that guy who reads an article about cryptocurrency in the Economist whilst waiting for the dentist, only to go home and bankrupt the next four generations of his family purchasing mining gear. He doesn’t think through anything, and he delights in throwing his newfound enlightenment in the alternately shocked and uncaring faces of his
friends and family acquaintances and colleagues. He’s drunk on knowledge and about as insufferable as a second year J-school student, a most dangerous state to find yourself in when cunning, stealth and careful planning are paramount to your very survival. He’s Nicholas Cage screaming his blasted head off as he and ultra calm Sean Connery break out of Alcatraz in The Rock; the man just has absolutely no chill, not even when lives are on the line.
And as it’s through Montag’s lens that we get the story of Fahrenheit 451, it stands to reason that I’d then find the novel to play out like one giant lecture. It’s groundbreaking work, to be sure, both at the time of its original publishing in 1953 and somehow still now, but it feels weighted down by its own self-importance. Montag? More like Mon-nag. Heh.
My copy also contains numerous spelling and grammatical mistakes, editing errors that make this insufferable J-school grad cringe, but also sort of wonder if this, too, was some sort of commentary on the unavailing nature of the written word – that it’s not the form the word takes, but rather the ultimate preservation of the word, the thought, the message. Or maybe it was just crap editing.
This burned book manicure was great in theory, but perhaps ever so less successful in terms of execution. I guess that’s what happens when you literally burn a book (hey, just a redundant page from one of TWO forewords, but I won’t lie and say I don’t LOVE the irony at work here) and stick it to your fingernails. Things got quite messy, and this manicure is ultimately a marvel of creative photo editing. There were also about nine different tense changes in those last three sentences – take THAT, Bradbury! Immutability of the written word, my grammatically incorrect butt. Clearly I’ve learned much since grade 9. 😉