Why I Hate Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury is one of the few writers published consistently in the science fiction category who is also read widely by non-sf readers. He was awarded a special National Book Award for "contributions to American letters", his books are regularly assigned in schools, and he inspires that special level of fanatical devotion that leads people to name blogs after him and create absurdly elaborate music videos about wanting to have sex with him.

Which is part of why it's so frustrating to me that I don't like him. Of all the sf authors who have made some significant impact on the mainstream (whose numbers include Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and China Mieville, among others), Bradbury is probably the one that troubles me the most. (Okay, Heinlein is deeply problematic, but that's another essay entirely.)

Bradbury's most famous and bestselling book is Fahrenheit 451. Like millions of Americans, I was assigned to read this book in Middle School, though I didn't until recently as part of my Reading the History of Popular Literature project. Most of what's always bothered me about Bradbury is summed up by this passage on page 7 of my edition:

He saw himself in her eyes, suspended in two shining drops of bright water, himself dark and tiny, in fine detail, the lines about his mouth, everything there, as if her eyes were two miraculous bits of violet amber that might capture and hold him intact. Her face, turned to him now, was fragile milk crystal with a soft and constant light in it. It was not the hysterical light of electricity but—what? But the strangely comfortable and rare and gently flattering light of the candle. One time, as a child, in a power failure, his mother had found and lit a last candle and there had been a brief hour of rediscovery, of such illumination that space lost its vast dimensions and drew comfortably around them, and they, mother and son, alone, transformed, hoping that the power might not come on again too soon…

Here we have a parade of adjectives, and buckets and buckets of sentiment, nostalgia, and more than anything we have a fetishization of the past, this pervading sense that things were better back before we had all this crazy technology. A reactionary looking-backward that is directly at odds with a genre whose whole purpose was originally to look forward.

But I wish a bit of Ludditism and purple prose was his only crime. Consider this passage:

Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally 'bright,' did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy for there are no mountain to make them cower, to judge themselves against. ... Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won't stomach them for a minute. … [what we need is] More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun and you don't have to think, eh? Organize and organize and super organize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less.

This is a kind of nerd fear-mongering. And the problem, the problem with this they're-trying-to-beat-us-smart-people-down worldview, is that it reinforces an us-versus-them mentality, the idea that there are evil jock-types who want to oppress us nice nerd-types. Sports are bad. Books are good. As if reality wasn't a thousand times more complicated. There's a sense in which Farenheit 451 can be read not just as snobbery (which it is), but as outright hate speech against the unbookish.

And as we read on, we discover the fundamentally right-wing nature of this particular breed of reactionary snobbishness.

If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it.

So big government is the problem, huh Ray? And it gets worse.

You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can't have our minorities upset and stirred. … Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.

Ah, so minorities are the problem. Can you tell us more about that, Ray? (From his afterward:)

About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles. But, she added, wouldn't it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women's characters and roles? A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn't I "do them over"? Along about then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks and the entire story should be dropped. … The point is obvious. 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/Unitarion, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women's Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FouirSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blancmange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

While I certainly don't advocate rewriting books to fit modern sensibilities, what Bradbury is doing here is a feint, a form of rhetorical hand waving. By equating all "minorities" with each other he privileges none, and so the black person complaining about Little Sambo is the same as the white person complaining about sympathetic black characters. But these two things are not the same. One is an actual minority complaining about a tool of oppression, and the other is a member of the majority complaining about an uppity minority. If people are coming to Bradbury and telling him that there aren't enough women characters or that black people aren't portrayed honestly, rather than waving that off, perhaps that should be a trigger for him to deeply evaluate himself and the prejudices he brings to his own work.

Which is the point. It's not actually minorities that are the problem at all. It's the majority, and its will to oppress those who are different, which is so much more than just the stupid trying to oppress the smart. When a publisher puts a white person on the cover of a YA novel about a black person, or when an agent tells an author they'll represent the book as long as a gay character is dropped, that's a form of oppression, an oppression that is contemporary and very real. And that is not at all the same thing as racist white people who complain about "political correctness" forcing entertainment to have more non-white and gay characters. By equating the two positions, Bradbury ironically dodges having to actually take a position on these issues; he's the one who's refusing to speak above a nursery rhyme.

In Bradbury's world the prevalence of TV and the absence of books creates people who are stupid, manipulable and violent. So, by his logic, before there was television people must have been smarter and more peaceful. Granted we are now looking back from the hindsight of over 50 years since the book was written, but it'd be pretty hard to convince me that people are more stupid, manipulable and violent now than they were, say, a hundred years ago, when black people were regularly lynched by the Klan and indeed we had a president who was practically a Klansman, a man who got us into one of the most deadly wars in history, a war we had no business being in, by canny use of propaganda. When unregulated banking (an absence of big government) led to the greatest economic collapse in history. No, things were not better back then. Not by a longshot. From a contemporary standpoint it's not even hard to make the argument that television, video games and so on have actually made us smarter and we know that violence has declined dramatically.

But if you want more evidence that Bradbury's book is founded on horseshit, here's a character explaining why books are so important:

Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has poors. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You'd find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more 'literary' you are. That's my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.

If telling detail were all it took to make literature, then the greatest of literature would be a litany of telling details devoid of plot, character arc or substance. Why would a character need to change as long as you have some telling, fresh details about his or her life? This is an incredibly shallow view of literature, especially coming from a character who is supposed to be a former professor of the subject.

This book makes me upset specifically because I love books so much. But Fahrenheit 451 makes us bibliophiles look like a bunch of reactionary assholes with our heads in the sand hoping (as happens in the book) that a nuclear holocaust will kill all those nasty jocks off so we can read in peace. And that's not just wrong, it's poisonous and hateful and I want nothing to do with it.

Comments

My goodness

I've no great urge to run to Bradbury's defense, but I think you've done a remarkably poor job with this essay. You present quotes from the book, but the conclusions you draw from them are exaggerated to the point of absurdity. He doesn't say that "big government is the problem," he says that government _in general_ prefers the public to ignore its faults; he's not saying "minorities are the problem," he's portraying the capitulation to any sort of pressure or criticism _regardless_ of actual merit; he doesn't say "the greatest literature would be details devoid of plot," that's your own exaggeration _ad absurdum_ of a particular point raised by a character.

You might be dead-on in your final assessment of the book; I haven't read it since I was a teen. And quite possibly the points you tried to demonstrate are entirely accurate; maybe re-reading the book, I would notice the criticisms you raise here repeating over and over through the book, and it's only your presentation of them here that I find unconvincing. But the fundamental structure of your article is a series of quotes - taken from fictional characters, from anecdotes, and entirely removed of context - and then applying an interpretation to each one which seems both heavily offended and far from intuitive. That's not a good combination.

Do not like Ray Bradbury either

I've tried to read Bradbury twice (the illustrated man and Fahrenheit 451) I hated both of those books. I just do not like his writing or his style. People say he's so good, but he's one of a few authors I just do not like.

I agree, all the books I had

I agree, all the books I had to read in school that are "Classics", "Great reads", and "Adored by all", had one thing in common, they ALL SUCKED! So why cant we just read REAL GOOD BOOKS. CAPS MEAN THAT I'M ANGRY!!!!!!!!!!

oh wow

I found this essay to be pretty naive if I'm perfectly honest. I know, I'm sorry, that's mean, but I totally agree with the above comment; why are you flinging these quotes so far far out of context?

Do you not think that maybe Bradbury is trying to use his characters to make points about the world, but that, as with any book, the reader is not actually meant to take his characters views as his own so cut-throat-edly? It's all black and white to you, it seems.

In terms of the complaints you cited, why should he not deem them similar? Shouldn't everyone get that even stand point? Surely deeming a black persons complaint as above a white persons simply for that fact is racism in itself. I'm not saying his methods were perfect, but nothing is that simple, right?

While brings me onto something else. For someone who states 'As if reality wasn't a thousand times more complicated.' you seem to simplify every point from the novel a ridiculous amount.

Gah, this essay made me sad. I really enjoyed Fahrenheit 451. Sure, doing something at school can make you dislike it (it's the same for me and Of Mice and Men) but seriously, calm down. Sure, be this violently abusive towards Mein Kampf or something similar, if you need to vent your frustrations, but a book which seems to me to be a field of debate, and a place where this specific situation is played out to extremes entirely for the reason to WARN US that this is where we're headed?

This essay was far too simply, derrogatory and plain rude for me.

Missed the point

YeaH, big government is the problem.

And I think you're missing the big picture of what Mr. Bradbury is trying to say. He isn't simply spewing hate for the unbookkish, he's condemning the abandonment of intellectualism and common intelligence for hedonism and conformity. If you read Beatty's extensive monologue near the middle of the book, you'd know that the society in which Montag lives bans books simply to keep the people from thinking for themselves and to keep the society existing in almost constant conformity.

Bradbury is not condemning technology or the unbookish. He's condemning the stupid and the un-intellectual. And if you still believe he's merely talking about the dangers of technology, please remember that the man has actually written screenplays for movies.

Funny thing about

Funny thing about anti-intellectualism, the same people who like a book like fahrenheit 451 and think it's a paean to learning and the life of the intellect are more likely than not to scoff at, say, The Recognitions or The Sotweed Factor. If they've heard of them at all.

No, what fahrenheit 451 does is champion the ego of the pseudo-intellectual with a lullaby that congratulates him for his minimal efforts to engage the world and so blissfully remain happily asleep to the deep deep flaws of this ill-considered nonsense.

For someone who loves books,

For someone who loves books, you're really, really, bad at interpreting them.

last opportunity to troll

last opportunity to troll anonymously. This comment strands, but further replies must be more substantive than this or they will be deleted.

that's just assuming that

that's just assuming that every single anonymous comment is made by the exact same person. out of the millions and millions of people in the world, making an assumption that far stretched is ridiculous, and if someone is going to get so butt hurt over someone stating their opinion that a crappily written and overly exaggerated essay was, well, a crappily written and overly exaggerated essay, then the essay should be then removed from the website because the person keeping an eye on the essay is limiting a person's freedom of speech. if someone within the comments is pressured to keep their opinion from themselves, then so should the author of such a cut-throat essay. I personally loved Fahrenheit 451 because it showed what the world could become if we DO continue down the path we are currently on where ideas like "No Child Left Behind" continue to hinder the preset standards in which students actually had to EARN their diploma instead of what we have now where a student may show up once a week (if that) and still receive their diploma. the essay was entirely wrong in the depiction of Fahrenheit 451 and for someone who claims to be a "nerd" and a "book lover" there were not only many spelling mistakes, but it also lacked the intellectual depth and ability to view one piece of material from a variety of angles. if all they wanted to say was that the author of such a low standard essay was ridiculous and not well written, let them say that. they are doing no harm to the reader or those who simply want to be able to post their own opinions on the work of Bradbury and the dimwitted author of this essay.

No, pussy cat

I made no such assumptions. Anonymity works simultaneously as a plurality and a singular addressee. I can say to a single anonymous commenter "you need to put more work into your thought or else you're just trolling" and thereby speak to the entire class of morons who are upset that someone criticized their favorite dumb book and are inclined to pipe up in its defense without actually saying anything substantive. It doesn't matter one bit whether there are a million of you idiots or only one using a million cybernetic masks. What matters is that there will be no trolling and that, in the interests of fairness, potential trolls who may not realize they are trolling be given an opportunity to fix it. I let one comment like that through and issue the caveat and I can safely delete the rest.

You misinterpreted this book

You misinterpreted this book to the point of complete ridiculousness.

No Trolling

You are welcome to make a contribution and explain why you think Eric misreads Fahrenheit 451. But just stating your opinion that he has done so is trolling and will not be tolerated. You can reply and expound, but further trolling will be deleted.

He misinterpreted the book :(

I don't think the person above explained where he went wrong because most of Eric's assertions on the book and on the narrator were completely misinterpreted to the point where explaining would just be tedious and futile to some extent, but I will try to explain. As one reply stated, Erics conclusions to the anecdotes and quotes from the book were completely misinterpretated and then exaggerated as well. When reading, especially books with great literary merit, one has to keep in mind that the author's message or personal opinions may be the exact opposite of those of the narrator and the characters. Beatty's monologue addressing the reasons they burn books is simply the characters perspective and nothing more. It doesn't necessarily mean that Bradbury agrees with him. You stated that bradbury is a reactionary snob looking backwards instead of forwards because of the quote in which montag and his mother favored the warmth of the candle rather than artificial light from their home. This is such a superficial interpretation of this passage. Bradburys novel is a warning to the present of what the future can become and this passage can be a parallel to today about favoring technology such as television and what not rather than the intellect one can receive from reading books. In this passage, montag and his mother had this experience of renewal when the power failure forced them to use candles. The candles represent books and the warmth and value they offer the reader when taken the time to read it. Bradbury isn't urging readers to backtrack into the middle ages and abolish technology, he is simpy saying that books can offer a different sort of illumination that technology will never be able to. Montag and his mother wanted the power to comeback, just not "too soon," because they were admiring the warmth of the candle. Similarly, Bradbury is saying that as people we should learn to have a healthy balance of the technology around us. Your interpretations are day and night, and Bradbury's novel is multifaceted and full of layers.
Throughout the novel there is a cliche of time (lack of) and moving too fast, which is a consequence of technology. Any sort of transportation does not go below a certain speed which is deliberate in order to limit the amount one can think. There is always multiple things going as well which limit the amount of time in which one can think (like when Mildred was in front of the three telescreens which prevented her from thinking and only allowed her to do). This is what Bradbury is tying to warn against. He believes that if we keep heading in this direction, we won't give ourselves enough time to think and that we will only be preoccupied with our technology. if any one character can embody what Bradbury is trying to say, it is Clarisse; who questioned why not how. She paid attention to the little details like the moon and the rain which were things that were often overlooked by the others including Montag.
I too did not enjoy Faranheit 451 on some occasions but for completely different reasons. I think it's a great book, but it is bradburys style of writing which I found a bit irritating. I didn't enjoy it as much as I did 1984 by George Orwell, or Brave New World by Aldous Huxly. They all are similar but I didn't enjoy f451 as much.
Finally, I apologize for my horrible spelling and egregious grammar, I was using my iPhone which is a horrible method of choice but I was too lazy to take out my laptop. I honestly don't think anyone is trying to troll, it's just that to try and explain where you went wrong is just an insanely laborious task.

See, this is where I differ

See, this is where I differ with you. It's one thing to say someone misinterpreted something and give a reason. It's another to say "you're worng you suck Bradbury forever!" and leave it at that.

I also disagree that it's all that laborious. In fact, I can sum up your objection pretty simply: You think Eric got it wrong because he's attributing views to the author that are views of the character, and you believe that is a mistake. That's pretty straightforward and a criticism that isn't hard to lodge.

Let me take that one step further, however, and say that in my view it doesn't matter whether the reactionary view is one that Bradury actually held, because it seems clear to me that that is the view that the text itself takes and advocates and I see little evidence in the text that this is really a warped view that is a result of distopian attitudes that the text itself condemns. I'd be very interested if there were such evidence because I think if that were what is going on in F451, then F451 would be a much better book than I've ever thought it was. But I haven't read it since I was a kid, and I'm not inclined to re-read it without good reason.

Yeah, pretty much what he

Yeah, pretty much what he said. The book seems to advocate the opinion. Also I talk about the problems of the Afterward, which Bradbury writes as himself.

And this is where I differ

First off, I did not say "you're wrong you suck Bradbury forever." (I'm not taking this literally) I only DID say that he misinterpreted the book, based on the conclusions he made from the quotes he chose. I'm sorry if my comment came across that way, I was just explaining what the quotes meant, and from seeing what the other comments say, I can safely assume most people agree with me when I said he misinterpreted the book.
Like I said, I myself did not really like Bradbury's style of writing, but I also did not like how Eric took a staunch opinion on a book that, in my opinion deserves more credit than he is giving. I'm not saying, "Bradbury's the best, you should take your opinion back." I'm just saying "give the guy more credit." Especially when the majority (emphasis on majority) of Eric's reasons for disliking Bradbury are flawed. His opinions just seem to be black and white.
As for you, do you think your comments are really credible or valid when you say that you haven't read the book since you were a kid (which is god knows when, no offense. I just don't know you) and you have no interest on re-reading it. I think its more suitable for someone who has read the book (recently) to give their feedback than someone who probably doesn't remember the book and has no interest in it. In my honest opinion, I think all of your comments seemed to be biased and in support of your friend Eric.
Anyways, onto your opinion, you're not really taking anything one step further, you're just saying that from your memory of the book, you believe the texts seems to advocate the "reactionary view" itself and, from your memory, it doesn't seem to advocate anything else. While this may very well be true, When I read F451 recently, I found it very similar to a satirical piece in which, like I said, In most cases the author purposely uses characters or even the whole story itself as a way to show an issue. I'm not saying it's a satirical piece itself, I'm just saying that it's similar in that although the text may advocate a reactionary view, the author's opinion may differ completely. If you were to re-read this book, which I doubt, I'm pretty sure you'd probably see what I'm talking about.
As for the Afterward (Eric), I don't think your views or your opinions of Bradbury, should taint your opinion of the book. Yes, Bradbury did write the book, but the work itself in my opinion shouldn't be really mixed with your feelings about the author. Bradbury has his own interpretation of the book and you too can have your own. The other issue I had with your interpretation; however, is that it was a little misconstrued in that you made it more of a judgement on the author's character rather than on contemporary issues or universal themes.
Lastly, Quackenbush, I don't understand you. When people say "you misinterpreted the book", you said "STOP TROLLING." When I gave extensive feedback on the parts I believed Eric misunderstood, you said: "I can sum up your objection pretty simply." If I would have just SIMPLY said: "you're attributing views to the author that are views of the character," you would have probably snapped back saying: Stop Trolling, don't give half a**ed answers without evidence." Honestly, I don't believe you have any right to be commenting on other people's opinions when in fact you're understanding of the book is probably no better than Eric's (given that you read it when you were a kid) and you seem to be significantly biased because Eric is probably a close colleague. Please read the book then comment back.
One more thing, Eric, sorry again if I offended you in any way with my initial comment, I didn't mean to. I only tried to explain where I believed you went wrong. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, and say that it was because of Bradbury's style of writing that made it a little harder to understand what he was trying to convey because that's kind of where I had issues. If re-read, I'm pretty sure you'd understand where I am coming from. I am no English teacher, I am only a recent high school grad. but that doesn't make my argument any less valid.

Eduardo, the reason you can

Eduardo, the reason you can safely assume that the other commenters agree with you is because most comments on this particular story get deleted because they're from trolls.

As to your points, I don't think you're supporting your case as well as you think you are. First you say that it appears to be satire to you. That's fine. You might be right. Show me some of this satire and tell me why you think its satire. TO just say "the book is satire" is just reiterating the very (simple) point that you've already made which is that you think Eric has attributed to the author ideas that are really only rightfully ascribed to the characcters.

And that's all well and good, but you haven't done the work to show that. Give me a page reference at least. I'm not going to re-read the book just because som random guy on the internet recommended that I reread it. I do trust Eric's opinion of literary over yours, and that's rightly so because I've known him for 15 years and I don't know you from Adam. But don't make the mistake of thinking that I agree with everything Eric says by default. The reason I'm defending Eric's criticism is that it resonates with my experience of a very flawed book, and because the people who are criticizing it keep doing so in generalizations without supporting their points. And that sort of behavior annoys me.

Now, You've been very reasonable and to my knowledge I haven't deleted any of your comments, so it's not likely that you're a troll. But that having been said at this point you have a choice to make. You can either stop making general assertions and provide some textual evidence that supports your view that eric is misreading fahrenhiet 451, or you can continue in this same vein with longwinded but vague claims which you then fail to support.

That may not be trolling. I don't know what it is, but if thats all you're going to do, I wouldn't bother because I won't bother responding to it because I'd only be repeating myself at that point,