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Farenheight 451

When I was in Graduate School I took a class in the Political Science department called “Political Utopias,” in which we read a bunch of fictional books that described either Utopian or Dystopian* societies. From  Looking Backward to Herland to Brave New World we covered a good variety of futuristic societies. We didn’t cover 1984 because the professor was sick of doing it, a sentiment I completely understand (re: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave). Our final assignment was to find a book with a Utopian society in it and give a presentation, grad students had to speak for about a half an hour and turn in a summary paper of about 20 pages, undergrads were half of that.

I picked Fight Club, another student picked The Handmaid’s Tale, and an undergrad student picked the Bradbury book Farenheight 451. It was apparent that the student hadn’t read the book as he closed his presentation with a question about the title, simply put he didn’t understand it. I explained to him that at 451 degrees paper ignites and burns, another student told him the degrees in Celcius, and another that the main character was a fireman who operated a flame thrower. I assume he failed the course.

Obviously this book is a classic. It’s a classic because the subject of the novel is so clear, it’s about the burning of books and destroying of ideas which we can all agree is a bad thing. What I found most interesting about the novel was not the book burning, but how it seemed that society had gotten there. An acquantence of mine remarked how funny it was that Bradbury became a conservative when his book is so obviously liberal but I don’t think that he actually had read the book. Sure, the protection of ideas is typically relegated to the liberal side of the aisle but not all ideas are warmed to protection. Watch an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher and you will definitely hear him rant against religion. It becomes clear that he doesn’t think it something to be preserved or protected.

The explanation of where society went on the path of book burning comes from the protaganist’s boss Chief Beatty in a long monologue about why books and ideas are bad. The meat of it is that, “you must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred…”

Bradbury isn’t talking just about racial minorities. He’s talking about every group that identifies themselves outside of the general population and can be offended to the point of raising a complaint. From the races, to the genders, to the afflicted, to the smart, to the dumb, the whole library of ideas was destroyed in order to protect those people from becoming offended.

Focusing on this aspect of the book is the more obvious choice for any reviewer, but Bradbury also has a Jules Verne like eye for prophecy as he forecasts the immediacy of mass media as it coincides with the dumbing down of the population. He explains that media became more available (in the book through ear piece radios, and four wall televisions) it became more practical but less intelligent. It was all reduced to opinions and images bereft of any truth or depth. The type of thing that would have Plato spinning in his grave.

Even with war looming on the horizon, and then beginning; the citizens of Bradbury’s future are more concerned with a high speed chase. He has two women discussing a candidate on the basis of appearance rather than any substantive issue. By the time I was finished with the book I wouldn’t have been surprised if he named social networking sites as being partly responsible either.

I don’t think that the message of the book is that books shouldn’t be burned, although that is certainly a message. It seems that the more important message is about being critical and intelligent and not using media as a distraction but as a tool. The ultimate irony for this book is that editions have been circulated to school with all of the “bad words” removed so as not to offend, and even further that this book has appeared on banned book lists throughout the country. Even if I’m wrong in my estimation at least I got one of the points right.

An odd word in itself since “utopia” in Greek means “no place.”

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