I think most lifelong readers must have mental lists of the gaps in their reading experience – the books that everyone else has read but that they haven’t. Fahrenheit 451 has been on my list for years – and, actually, so has Bradbury’s entire oeuvre. That’s right – until last week, I hadn’t read anything by Ray Bradbury at all – as far as I can remember, not even a short story. Seems strange, doesn’t it?
So I picked up Fahrenheit 451 and started reading. I already knew the premise, of course: the setting is a futuristic, dystopian United States in which it is a crime to read books, and the protagonist, Guy Montag, is a “fireman” whose job is to burn down houses in which people are reading. The atmosphere of this novel is similar to that of other twentieth- and twenty-first century dystopian novels like 1984, Brave New World, The Giver, and The Hunger Games. Common elements of all of these novels is that a centralized government uses fear, the media, and/or drugs to provide a physically safe but contrived and controlled life for a portion of humanity, who consider themselves privileged to live within the confines of a city or other controlled space. Outside this space – the protagonist always eventually learns – are people who live in poverty and danger but retain the intellectual and moral freedom that the city dwellers have surrendered.
I wasn’t very impressed with Bradbury’s novel, although I understand why it’s a classic and think it’s a worthwhile introduction to the genre of dystopian fiction for young readers. I like all of the novels that I listed above better. Guy Montag isn’t much as a protagonist: while I recognize that it is difficult to fully characterize someone who has given up much of his individuality and submitted to the control of the government, all of the writers of the books above do a better job of fleshing out their protagonists than Bradbury does. Some of the technological innovations he creates for this novel are amusing: the robotic “hounds” that seek out and then euthanize offenders who evade capture (to which Suzanne Collins probably owes a bit of a debt for the creation of her hybrid creatures in The Hunger Games) and the idea of installing entire rooms made of TV screens (Montag’s wife complains that he has only bought her three “walls” – basically wall-sized flatscreens – on which she can watch TV; he is saving his money to install the fourth wall when the novel begins – not a bad bit of prescience on Bradbury’s part back in 1953, no?). But I always know that I’m not enjoying a novel much if I’m more interested in the gadgets than in the human beings.
Obviously this is a “message” novel. It exists not to provide beautiful specimens of characterization but as a warning that we always live on the verge of sacrificing our freedom to think for ourselves, and this is both old news and supremely relevant. Montag’s transformation begins when he encounters a teenage girl, Clarisse McClellan, one night on his way home from work. Clarisse is sort of traipsing around on her tiptoes in the middle of the night, rhapsodizing about how much she loves good conversation. She reminds me of a younger version of those women who are always floating around ethereally on beaches in the J. Jill catalog. Later in the novel Clarisse appears to have been vaporized or otherwise removed from society in some way because of the threat she represents to the status quo. On the basis of his interaction with Clarisse, Montag begins to recognize how vapid his wife Mildred is, and he questions the pastimes that he has been acculturated to enjoy.
An interesting thing happens when Montag arrives home on the night he meets Clarisse. It turns out that his wife Mildred has committed suicide. He calls his community’s emergency number, and a what appears to be a team of plumbers arrives and begins to very efficiently pump her stomach, empty her body of blood, and then pump it full of new blood. They assure Montag that when Mildred awakes she will be very hungry and will remember nothing of what happened or of why she wanted to commit suicide. Shortly thereafter, Montag is summoned to burn a woman’s book collection and is struck by the fact that she would rather die with her books than live without them. Each of these experiences enhances the discontent that is building within Montag until he decides to squirrel a few books home with him, leading to a life of rebellion and, eventually, exile.
The plot is such an old, old story. It’s the journal in 1984, the encounter with John the Savage in Brave New World. It seems to be a modern obsession that we Post-Industrials have traded our freedom for safety and convenience – or it’s a matter of “freedom from” versus “freedom for,” and we’ve traded our intellectual and creative liberty in exchange for freedom from war, disease, and violence. Books like Fahrenheit 451 exaggerate, of course: they use hyperbole to draw attention to an undercurrent of conformity that is operating on us (even as we are creating and reinforcing it) in ways that are much subtler than anything that happens in this book. A few months ago I was at the checkout counter in a Barnes and Noble next to a woman and her daughter, who was about eight or nine. The woman was in the process of paying for a stack of children’s classics (Heidi, The Secret Garden, that sort of thing) when she noticed that the books she was buying were “children’s editions,” meaning that they had been edited and abridged. The woman reacted in horror (“I can’t buy these!”) and asked the clerk to check if the store had the full, unedited editions in stock. And people, IT DIDN’T. She had the clerk void the transaction and left the store, explaining to her child in clear and forceful terms why she should never read edited editions of classic books. I’m not usually one for talking to strangers, but before she left I looked at her and – making sure the Barnes and Noble staff could hear me – said, “Good for you.” She just nodded. She got it. Most people don’t. The Barnes and Noble employees certainly didn’t – they looked at both of us as if they needed something else by way of explanation, but neither of us obliged. If you don’t already understand, nothing I can say will make a difference, I imagine we were both thinking.
I know that book burning is a real thing that sometimes happens. But occasions like the one above, in which someone with a title or a degree or some kind of official authority (in this case, the editors of the children’s classics) prevents us from accessing books by placing some kind of filter between the reader and the book, are much more common. Most of the time, people are grateful for the intercession of these experts: they happily buy the edited book or the Spark Notes or the movie adaptation and are thankful that they live in the twenty-first century when the world provides them with so many conveniences and choices. And THAT is what Fahrenheit 451 “means”: the purpose of Bradbury’s hyperbole in this novel is to draw attention to the ways in which we participate in the making of our own prisons and the limiting of our own vistas.
I’ve already said that I didn’t enjoy this book too much as a reader, so while I was reading it my mind did a lot of wandering. I kept returning to the question of how I managed to get through my childhood and adolescence without ever reading Fahrenheit 451 or any other of Bradbury’s work. I know that I was aware of this book – I just never read it. And what I kept coming back to was this: any time there is a book that everyone reads in childhood but that I didn’t read, there is probably one simple explanation for the omission.
Most likely, at some point in my childhood, a librarian recommended it.
I loved to read as a child. I read young, I read above my level, and I read everything – or at least, I read everything except what people who claimed to be experts in children’s literature told me to read. I liked libraries, but I can’t remember a time in my childhood when my heart was not hardened against librarians.
I realize that I am voicing a controversial opinion. I’m a teacher, for God’s sake – I am supposed to become positively euphoric by the thought of conducting orderly lines of children in the direction of libraries. I imagine that some of you might be wondering how I can say such a thing. But here’s the deal: mention an aversion to librarians to adults or teenagers who grew up loving to read, and you will find that this idea is not controversial or idiosyncratic at all. On the contrary, it’s almost universal.
To someone who dislikes reading or feels neutral about it, a librarian is an expedient. This person is seeking a book as a means to an end – to complete a school or work assignment, to learn something he wants to know about, or maybe to find an entertaining book to kill time on a beach vacation or plane trip. This person wants to complete his transaction as soon as possible and get the hell out of the library and back to real life, and the librarian is the expert who can help make this happen for him. Fine. But to a person who loves books and reading – especially a child – a librarian is a troll guarding the treasure.
Now, this troll doesn’t want to stop the child from reading. This troll wants something far more insidious: he wants the child to read and enjoy reading – but only on the troll’s own terms. The librarian wants nothing less than perfect obedience. The editor of a series of children’s classics examines The Secret Garden and says, “I want you to read this, but let’s make the old man a little less creepy and maybe the girl doesn’t have to be an orphan – her parents survived cholera just fine and are resting in the mountains – and you definitely aren’t ready for the part where the boy dies.” A librarian manages the same task by steering the child toward a different shelf. In my childhood, librarians were as aggressive as cage fighters about this. They had studied child development and they sized you up the moment that you walked in the door and they knew exactly what you were “ready for” – both in terms of your reading level and your ability to handle sensitive issues.
It was during my teaching career that I learned how universal this experience is for kids who love to read. I could always figure out pretty quickly which of my students really loved books, and I noticed the things that they said and the looks on their faces at the mention of libraries. A friend of mine remembers that when she was eight the staff at her town’s public library “staged an intervention” because they thought she was reading too many Agatha Christie novels and that these books were over her head.
Sometimes what children are ready for is reading something that they are not ready for. It’s how growth happens – you do something that is hard for you, and your mind stretches and expands around the new challenge. Emotional growth works this way too – reading introduces us to the infinite variety of ways that our feelings can be stretched and defied and manipulated and tested, and then when something happens in real life that attacks our own feelings in these ways, our emotions are exercised and ready for the battle. I don’t have my own children, but I have many children and teenagers in my life that I care about, and what I want for all of them is this: a real life that is safe, and a reading life that is anything but.
Books are one of the few representations of the adult world that consistently refuse to talk down to children. Books are what they are: they don’t change their mode of discourse to appeal to different readers. They don’t watch their language or smile condescendingly or knock their voices up a couple of octaves and suggest that maybe the child would like to play outside while the grownups talk. Most importantly, books know that NO ONE has the right to tell any human being what he or she is “ready for.”
Now, I don’t hate librarians any more, although I still have very close access to what it felt like when I did. In one of life’s great ironies, I have even considered becoming a librarian. And I also know that my own profession is known as one that drives wedges between kids and books – in the case of English teachers, we have a reputation for building walls of obtuseness around books and then suggesting that the only way that these walls can be breached is with keys that we possess. I resist this model of teaching with all my heart, but I am sure that without meaning to I have sometimes increased the distance between my students and their books – made them feel that there was something magical and mystical about books and that they could only be trusted to the care of experts.
There is nothing magic about books. Fahrenheit 451 ends when Montag meets up with a group of exiles who remain on the fringes of society and consider themselves to be the repositories of the books that their government has burned: “we’re nothing more than dust jackets for books… Some of us live in small towns. Chapter One of Thoreau’s Walden in Green River, Chapter Two in Willow Farm, Maine… And when the war’s over someday, some year, the books can be written again, the people will be called in, one by one, to recite what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damn thing over again” (153). I like this idea because I think that books are very much like people: as Fahrenheit 451 and many other similar novels reveal, they are vulnerable to destruction and misunderstanding just like people are.
So that’s what I was thinking about when I read this novel. I didn’t hate it (at moments the prose is wonderful), and I do want to read some more Bradbury to round out this particular corner of my education. But I’ll admit – I spent most of the time when I was reading this book thinking about myself and becoming angry all over again at every person who has ever tried to stop me from reading something.
It’s funny, really.