The Library of America Ray Bradbury edition is prophecy, not past
When Fahrenheit 451 came out in 1953, some readers and critics took it as a gonzo dystopian fantasy about a society that aggressively burns books. Today, the novel is nothing less than a vivid depiction of what is going on around us, in an era when certain ideologies that purported to liberate people from the narrow confines of one or another identity have done the complete opposite and have forced a guilt-driven reckoning with the past, at least as ideologues see it.
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Given the cancellation of books by major publishers and the literal burning of books in Ontario in 2019 as part of a campaign of supposed “reconciliation” with indigenous peoples, the story is nowhere near as shocking and incredible as you might wish it to be.
The Library of America’s handsome new edition of Bradbury contains The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, and Something Wicked This Way Comes in addition to Fahrenheit 451. The other novels are beloved classics that many of us read in the very early years of our education, and we may recall their distinct sensibility—science fiction or fantasy tinged with wonder and sadness—even if the plots have faded from memory. In the end, those books’ appeal may really be strongest for younger readers. It’s Fahrenheit 451 that stands as one of the most trenchant iterations of “Told you so!” in literary history. Words cannot convey how precisely a writer seven decades ago captured the temper of our own time. You have to read the book to believe it.
Bradbury depicts a society dumbed down to the point where people barely understand the implications of the destruction of literature as corps of “firemen” aggressively seek out books and set them ablaze. The protagonist, Guy Montag, lives with his wife Mildred, and some of their discussions and arguments are so sublimely inane they may make you a little nauseas. Neither can recall the details of when and where their wedding took place, even though it has not been that long, maybe something like ten years. This seemingly incidental detail holds the key to a lot of what’s going on here. The cessation of the mental exercise that reading involves has allowed people’s minds and mental powers to degenerate and wither to the point that they can’t recall basic facts about who they are.
Montag’s disillusionment takes hold when he and his fellow firemen locate a trove of books on the property of an elderly woman so fiercely attached to them that she won’t get out of the way when they set about their work. She burns along with her books. In Bradbury’s novel, consumerism and a powerful need for instant gratification tears through our world smashing anything and everything in their path. But a larger cause is an anti-intellectualism, a contempt for nuance and shades of meaning, that will be all too familiar to those of us who have observed the ravages of cancel culture, which treats the works of a beloved children’s author as the agent and manifestation of racism and cultural imperialism.
The boss of Montag’s crew, Beatty, is a complex figure, committed to his mission yet not as much of an enemy of books as he first appears. Heads of the firemen crews, we learn, enjoy the privilege of receiving a book every so often in order to come to understand exactly what the role of literature has been and why their work is so urgent. Read a book, and you’ll start thinking all kinds of crazy and possibly politically incorrect thoughts. Sure can’t let that happen.
But in Beatty’s case, the chief has made a point of absorbing the work of great authors and has all kinds of brilliant and lyrical quotations from various authors on the tip of his tongue, as Montag comes to find to his astonishment. When Montag’s guilt over the woman they burned and the nefariousness of what they are doing becomes too intense to suppress, he gets into a fight with Beatty, and the outcome makes Montag a fugitive. The Stephen King (or “Richard Bachman”) novel The Running Man presents a scenario that reads very much like an updating, not to say ripoff, of the latter half of Fahrenheit 451, as a man who has fallen afoul of his batty dystopian society’s rules and conventions goes on the lam and vast forces mobilize to hunt him down.
If only the world of Fahrenheit 451 were unrecognizable to us today. When you talk about the issues that Bradbury’s novel raises, the progressive response is to deny that cancel culture exists. Calling those who complain about it racists or even white supremacists is a favorite ploy. Just look at Valerie Strauss’s recent Washington Post article where she matter-of-factly makes this claim. “’Cancel culture is a white-supremacist fantasy that creates villains and then mobilizes anger against the villains it has imagined,” Strauss writes. Perhaps in her mind, all the signatories of the Harper’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” raising the alarm about cancel culture (even if it does not use that specific term), a list including such names as Cornel West, Gloria Steinem, and Noam Chomsky, are white supremacists.
At least some people, of varying ideological persuasions, know which way the wind is blowing and what foul odors it carries. People are burning books in the name of woke values. Thanks to the reissue of Bradbury’s classic, perhaps more will come to see the phenomenon for what it is.