There are many dystopian novels that are considered classics of literature. 1984 obviously springs to mind, as does The Handmaid’s Tale. Another book that’s constantly numbered among these titans of type is Fahrenheit 451. If 1984 is about government oversight, and The Handmaid’s Tale is about (white) women’s bodily autonomy, Fahrenheit 451 takes its stand against the evils of censorship. And while I always knew that was what it was about in a vague intellectual sense—the titular temperature is that at which author Ray Bradbury believed books burn—I’d never actually read the book to learn what story inside was.
Earlier this week, I finally did that. And now I’m kind of pissed off to discover that Bradbury’s idea of censorship is about as sensitive and compelling as a 4chan forum.
A quick play by play, if you, like recent-past me, have never read this: A guy named Guy (yes really) becomes disillusioned with his job as a fireman—in this fireproofed future, a fireman is a government employee who starts fires in order to burn books, the owning of which is forbidden. He starts rescuing books from his work, but his wife snitches on him to the authorities and he is forced to go on the run. Having escaped from his pursuers, he discovers a commune in the woods of like-minded people who claim to have memorized entire destroyed books for the purpose of, some day, putting them back into print. To artistically cap the whole thing off, as Guy and his new crew head out into the world, the city Guy just escaped from is bombed (by “enemies” in a war whose antagonist and purpose are even less clear than those in 1984) and the entire trappings of Guy’s past life, including presumably his wife, go up in flames.
Just on the surface, the book is annoying in that it has very few female characters. One of them, Clarisse, a manic pixie dream teen, exists only to suggest the idea of pondering why things happen instead of just how before literally dying off-page, never to be heard from again. Another elderly woman allows herself to be immolated on the pyre of her books rather than live in a world without them, and it’s the image of this woman’s death that really stirs Guy to his rebellious action. That’s two women dead for the sake of his development. And then there’s his deeply unlikeable wife, who rats out her husband to the firemen and spends all the rest of her time plugged into her wireless earbuds watching giant, wall-sized flatscreens—technologies that Bradbury predicted but at the same time condemned as both cause and consequence of the downfall of books and reading.
Bradbury’s “technology is bad fire is scary and Thomas Edison was a witch” mentality toward all technology is another thing that turned me off from this story. Technology is portrayed as the opposite of books rather than something entirely different or as something complementary; the idea that someone might get all their storytelling from a screen or a pair of headphones rather than from the written word was the ultimate horror. And this perennially reactionary and conservative anti-“kids these days and their [latest technology here]” stance has been voiced and debunked presumably since art, media, and storytelling were invented. And, per interviews and conversations with Bradbury—including one unintentionally hilarious one in which he saw a woman with earbud headphones in and recoiled in horror that his nightmare was coming to life in reality—it’s ultimately this message that was intended to be the message of the book, not the oft-touted anti-censorship message.
And even if we look at the book from a perspective of commentary on censorship, it remains problematic. If we want to take into account Bradbury’s own interpretation of his work — which, as a firm believer in the concept of death of the author, I don’t usually do — and look at the historical context in which Bradbury was writing in 1953, one might draw lines to Nazi book burnings, Stalinist purges, and McCarthyist blacklisting. But in Bradbury’s novel, the ban on books is framed not as the government controlling the narrative such that anything that disagrees with its narrative is verboten—a.k.a., censorship as it’s legally framed vis-a-vis First Amendment rights—but rather as the political correctness gone out of control that people seem to fear every time there’s discourse about trigger warnings on college campuses.
There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. […] Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the libraries closed forever.
That’s from the afterword, but even in the text the book blames the censorship and destruction of books on minorities who tried to “control” the content of books, which, rather than being a compelling argument, seems more like the kind of rhetoric espoused by a certain subgroup dedicated to “““ethics in games journalism”””. What’s especially strange here is the book’s attitude toward race and the general idea of being a minority – there are no characters of color in the book to begin with, but one of the only examples he gives in the text about why people started to ban books specifically calls out race as a motivator.
To begin with, this quote either intentionally or unintentionally conflates unlike things. Black people were unhappy about Little Black Sambo—the perennial example of a book that portrays Black and South Indian people in a racist way. White people, on the other hand, were mad about Uncle Tom’s Cabin—a book written by an abolitionist that showed white people how racist they were. These are not equal callouts, and grouping them with “corporations hiding health information” in the next sentence muddies the issues even further. But beyond that, this ignores how real censorship actually works. Historically, it’s not the people in the minority, who lack political power, who are able to ban things. For the same reason that there’s no such thing as reverse racism, (i.e., one group in society has structural, systemic power, and one lacks it) only people in the majority typically have the power to gatekeep content. Bradbury’s afterword even espouses the all-too-familiar view that people who want to see decent representation of minorities should create those works themselves rather than ““forcing”” him to include them in his all-white, mostly-male worlds. Making him write diversity would be censoring his creative vision, according to his perspective.
Ultimately I can see for sure why this has become a classic of the white male American literary canon; the reactionary views presented in a daring, devil’s advocate format are custom-built to appeal to the people who dig that kind of thing. But I’m kind of bummed to discover that an author who’s hailed as such a titan of the sci-fi and dystopian genres is kind of a depressing edgelord when it comes down to it, and I know I won’t be reading it again.
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