What do books mean to you? Can you imagine a world where books are illegal? Ray Bradbury, in Fahrenheit 451 published in 1953, took us through that imagination.
In the futuristic American society, books were banned and burned by “firemen.” In that dystopian world, books were deemed dangerous and meaningless.
The protagonist Guy Montag is a fireman who goes on his daily life like a routine, the same way other civilians do. As a fireman, he was discharged to houses with books when an alarm turned off. His uniform consisted of a helmet that reads “451,” a black suit with a salamander on the arm and a “phoenix disc” on the chest. He was equipped with kerosene and an igniter. He put books and houses into flames.
That was all usual to him until a series of events occurred. One time on his way from work, he encountered a bright 17-year-old, Clarrise McClellan, who loves nature and knowledge. Clarrise questioned him in a way that no one had. She asked “Is it true that long ago
firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?” and “Are you happy?” To him then, she was an “odd one.”
Afterward, he found out his wife, Mildred took sleeping pills and attempted to commit suicide. Two hospital workers rescued her. The next day, Mildred remembers nothing about the event. On the other hand, Montag was uneasy.
About a week later, on one of his missions to burn books, an old woman refused to exit the house full of her books, no matter how hard Montag convinced her. Captain Beatty, a more experienced fireman, lit the fire anyway. The old woman lit her own matches and stayed in the flaming house. The event hit the firemen emotionally, but particularly Montag. He questioned “There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”
Books are media that expand one’s knowledge. They have the ability to create complexity in our thinking and how society runs. They allow readers to empathize and understand events that we don’t first-hand experience. Books have the power to shift the world in all directions. It is not quite a surprise that someone decided life is meaningless without books.
This can explain the incident above. The woman can be seen as an intellectual who was dependent on books as a source of meaning for life. She understood the power of books and the positive implication they have on her. In a society where what she can see is fully controlled, where else could she find complexity beyond what she could see? It was only in books that she can drift through what was exceeding her reality.
The series of events made Montag realize he’s “unhappy.” But he couldn’t fathom why. He found himself ignorant. He thought that books might help him search for the reason for the unhappiness and bail him out of obliviousness. Reading allowed him to question more and encouraged him to find meaning in life. That passion amplified after he talked to Faber, a former professor.
The ending of Fahrenheit 451 took Montag to a group of intellectual rebels as he ran away from the hunt of the government in the midst of war. The ending was a juxtaposition of annihilation and hope. As an atomic bomb dropped, he became part of an association that aims to remember iconic and important literature.
For centuries, books have allowed us to learn complex skills that we can’t learn in school. It has bridged the distinctions we have in the world. It is an empowering tool. Although it creates the controversy that the society in Fahrenheit 451 tried to revoke, it is what makes us grow as a species. It allows us to question and empathize, a quality that is unique to the human race. In a world that lacks hope right now, we need to inform ourselves of situations beyond our surroundings and be able to sympathize. And that is how positive changes happen.
Written by: Thathiny Tep