Banned Book Club reads Fahrenheit 451

I got tricked into thinking it was a longer book; the 60th Anniversary Edition I snagged from the library is 2/3 story and 1/3 commentary and essays about the book and author, Ray Bradbury.

Montag lives in a future where the purpose of his job as fireman has less to do with saving lives and more about saving people from the ideas in books. After a chance meeting with a young girl who questions his purpose, Montag starts to consider the possibility that Clarisse was right. She knows pieces of their cultural history that she could have only gotten from books and she’s a stark contrast to his wife, Mildred, who spends every waking moment either hooked up at the ears to what passes for the internet in this dystopia, or watching the reality tv programs on every wall of the house. Clarisse vanishes and Montag steals a book he’s supposed to burn. This helps set off a domino effect of problems for himself and those he knows. He winds up escaping into the woods before bombs obliterate his hometown, finding a possible future among men who’ve also committed the crime of wanting to learn from the past and agrees to devote his life to memorizing the book he read, which turns out to be a piece of the Bible — Ecclesiastes.

Full of irony, that bit he remembers — here’s part of Chapter 1, bits bolded by me:

1 The words of the Teacher,[a] son of David, king in Jerusalem:

2
“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

3
What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
4
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.

5
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
6
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
7
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
8
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
9
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

10
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
11
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.

Damn..

The book is filled with allusions and quotes to literary history – most of which went over my head on reading. I’ll quote this one from Heliweb:

First Fireman: Benjamin Franklin: Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), statesman and philosopher, is said to be one of the fathers of the American Dream and famous for his Autobiography . At the same time he is the founder of America’s first fire brigade, which came into being in Boston in 1736.

— at which point I simply must point to The Dollop podcast, which did an excellent rundown of the history of firefighting in the States. Amazing, crazy shit and totally worth a listen.

More from Heliweb:

Bradbury was obviously haunted by the idea of an atomic war: when he wrote his novel it was a few years ago only that the Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet, the novelist is somewhat optimistic, if not naive, concerning the possibility for mankind to survive such a catastrophe: this seems to be possible for the so-called book people in the end, who live just a few miles away from the city which is destroyed by atomic bombing: however, they do not care about their being exposed to nuclear radiation.

And I never got the sense at the end of the story that it was atomic bombing that went on; I just thought whatever enemy blew the crap out of the town did so for no particular reason beyond there being a war going on. Which reminds me, wasn’t it Nagasaki that wasn’t even the intended target, but it was too cloudy for the first choice hit? (“Lucky” Kokura.)

I felt like I had read it before, but most of it still took me by surprise. What I did remember reading was a piece by Bradbury from the Coda about schools wanting to include the book in the reading syllabus but also wanting it heavily censored. From Villanova University:

Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953 by Ballantine Books, immediately captured the reading public’s imagination. A shorter version in novella form, “The Fireman,” had appeared in 1951 in Galaxy, a science fiction magazine. The novel takes place in a society that bans books which, if discovered, are then burned by firemen. The protagonist, Montag, a fireman, progressively becomes a believer in the value of books.

Ironically, Fahrenheit 451, an indictment of censorship, was itself censored by its publisher for thirteen years before Bradbury himself became aware of that. In 1967, Ballantine published an expurgated version of the novel to be used in high schools. Such words as “hell,” “damn” and “abortion” were eliminated.

In a novel of approximately one hundred and fifty pages, seventy-five passages were modified. Two episodes were actually changed. In one episode, a drunken man is changed to a sick man. In another, cleaning fluff out of a human naval becomes, in the expurgated version, cleaning ears.

Thus, part of the reason we include it in our banned book reading lists. Also, for content in general and the idea that the ideas in a book may be dangerous to read and share with others and may cause mass hysteria or confusion or trouble.

Makes me want to re-read Margaret Atwood’s classic, A Handmaid’s Tale, which we did as a banned book title some years ago. That was similar, at least in terms of creating a world where people were actively discouraged from learning anything. Same I suppose for 1984 and Brave New World, though in different ways, all books we’ve previously tackled as a group, which is why those links lead to previous posts of mine. Plug plug plug…

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