Literary Inspiration: Fahrenheit 451

451 Collage

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.

451 2

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.

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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. 😉

8 thoughts on “Literary Inspiration: Fahrenheit 451

  1. Huh.
    Not huh, as in huh?? I don’t understand why Sandra didn’t enjoy F 451, but more so, huh, why do I regard it as one of my favorite books of all time again? You made some good points.
    Still, Fahrenheit had a profound effect on me so I feel I must defend it as best I can. Apologies in advance for any arguments I offer which don’t make sense (I’ll blame the cold medicine and interrupted circadian rhythms, but it could be blind allegiance to Bradbury as well).
    I read it in grade 10 or 11 (outside of school because that’s the nerd I was) and remember the distinct horror it imparted on my young brain. Horror in the complete opposite way that I was used to reading-Stephen King and Dean Koontz style monsters or Christopher Pike’s freakish brand of thrills. Sure, the parts where firemen are seeking out and torching books were upsetting and that mechanical hound legit scared the crap out of me, but also what it did was made me realize, the first time I think, that society could be the villain.
    I was a reader, reading was the only thing I did some entire days of my life (lazy summer days usually), the written word was almost sacred and I, like Montag, was first awakening to the fact that reading and thinking could be considered a threat. I was probably naive. I didn’t question much even though I considered myself a punk, I was no rulebreaker. Clarisse’s disappearance unsettled me, Montag’s wife’s distant being and overdose? unsettled me (how could someone be so removed from her life? I hadn’t run into this type of non-character before then), the constant TV walls unsettled me. F451 UNSETTLED me. And I didn’t find Montag annoying, unwise perhaps, lacking stealth, definitely. It’s likely I was annoying and couldn’t recognize it in his behavior. But Mon-nag? LOL! Nope, not chill, but who would be in his situation? There are some things you can’t unlearn and there’s no going back.
    It’s bleak stuff, but media addiction, censorship, stamping out of free thinking, being tracked and somewhat owned by employers/advertising corporations-yeah I’ll say it was/is pretty visionary. And the notion that a person would be accountable for possessing a book in his mind, so the ideas wouldn’t be forever lost, a concept passed down from the ancients, I ate that shit up! Whenever I discuss this book with someone (albeit infrequently although my niece was just “forced” to read it in high school, verdict-hated it) I always ask the someone, which book would you be? So I shall ask you. Which would you hold for posterity?
    Of course, my answer is Fahrenheit 451.

    • But see, you’re already showing your appreciation for and understanding of this novel in a way that just doesn’t reach me, and sadly never did (I say sadly because I really feel like this might have been a function of that “This is for school, therefore I reject it” mentality I had; there’s hardly a book I was assigned in high school that I cared about either way. I could hardly work up the energy to hate something, and it was in and out of my life within its allotted study period. I really didn’t come to care about literature until the very, very end of high school and university.)

      But all the feelings you said the book prompted in you, I remember feeling those same things. Mostly the book just left me feeling uneasy. The TV walls freaked me out quite a bit – that is the one visual that stuck with me. I didn’t remember Clarisse AT ALL – how, I don’t know, because I literally gasped out loud when Montag’s wife just casually and dismissively says, “Oh yeah, her, she died.” How on earth did I miss that the first time around? I wasn’t paying attention, which itself is such a meta commentary, I hardly know where to start. 😦

      I’d hold Charlotte’s Web, as a reminder through simple storytelling of the beauty that can be found in sacrifice and loss. It never fails to gut me completely – I’m crying now just sitting here thinking about it, for pity’s sake!

      • Yes, his wife’s callous comment displayed the inherent theme that I responded to (and struggled w/as a teen): rejecting callousness for human empathy. I must have only understood the edges of it upon reading, a general sense of the symbolism because I never studied it or fully appreciated it until adulthood.

        I forgot to mention I own the graphic novel which is a cool way to experience the story. But my first read-through was the classic text. I guess F451 is to me what The Virgin Suicides represents to you…

      • F451 would do quite well as a graphic novel – it already has that sort of stylistic feel to it. I bet that’s super cool. I’d hate to see what the Virgin Suicides would look like as a graphic novel, but you know there’s someone out there who probably wants to give it a go!

        Did you happen to watch the new HBO…adaptation? I think it’s supposed to stick pretty close to the story, so can that be called an adaptation? Anyhow, I haven’t seen it, no HBO, but Michael Shannon, who I find completely terrifying, plays Beatty and the dude I’ll always know as Wallace from The Wire (Michael B. Jordan – he was the bad guy in Black Panther) plays Montag. I heard it wasn’t super, but who the heck knows – these things are clearly subjective. I always like seeing how these things translate, especially when I really love the source material.

      • Thanks. 🙂 I love that book. My mom and I read it together over March Break one year when I was very, very little. I remember thinking it was beautiful, but devastating. Not much has changed on that front!

  2. Pingback: Literary Inspiration: The Handmaid’s Tale | Finger Candy

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