Playing with Fire: A Fresh Look at Fahrenheit 451

Written by Allison Toy
Photography by Tori Freeman

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” -Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury was an extraordinary author. He lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. He created short stories, horror stories, worlds of fantasy, and screenplays. Out of everything, though, he is best known for Fahrenheit 451.

When I first read Fahrenheit 451, it was simply because it was required reading in high school. I learned about the title (451°F is the burning point of paper) and the author (good ole Bradbury), and then I opened the book expecting a rather boring read.

I was in for a surprise.

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Bradbury’s writing transported me to another world, but one which seemed oddly familiar. He wrote about a disregard (or was it fear?) of books and ideas and the addictive nature of television.

As I learned about the history surrounding Fahrenheit 451, I was fascinated. During World War II, America looked on in horror as German Nazis and Russian communists made bonfires out of books, destroying anything and everything that disagreed with their mantras.

The war ended, and in an ironic twist, censorship came to America. In an effort to purge the country of communism, Senator Joseph McCarthy began chasing down and interrogating scores of citizens (most of whom were innocent). As a result of the McCarthy hearings, careers were ruined at the slightest hint of communism, and books and art were blacklisted.

Today when I reread Fahrenheit 451, I’m glad I know the historical context of the book. I hear the urgency in the voice of Guy Montag (the main character) as he begins to realize the value of books. I feel the heat of the “firemen” whose job it is to burn books and cause destruction, rather than to extinguish fires. I recall how freedom of speech in literature was threatened in a very real way during Bradbury’s life.

 

A moment later, I think about modern times. I still feel panic rise in my chest when Montag’s wife becomes enslaved to the television, when her life becomes more entangled in the fictional figures projected on the wall than the husband who comes home to her every night. I wonder if I know the characters on my favorite TV show better than I know my roommates.

The year 2018 is surely different. We don’t burn or blacklist or ban books. But, then again Bradbury’s words ring in my ears: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

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As I contemplate Bradbury’s ingenuity, I realize the power of his writing lies in the value he places not only on books, but also on ideas.

As Fahrenheit 451 character Faber tells Montag, “It’s not books you need. It’s some of the things that once were in books.”

What were these valuable things in books, the things worth risking very lives for?

In this era of dodging and dancing around political hot topics, I wonder if those valuable things were ideas. Perspectives. A different way of looking at life.

“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches….”

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I wonder if staying in my echo chamber is my way of running around with a match. I wonder if disengaging from difficult conversations with people who are different than me is my way of burning ideas and torching all other perspectives.

I wonder if my fear of being wrong keeps me from growing.

As Bradbury says, “If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.”

To be certain, Bradbury inspires a love for books and an appreciation for the freedom (and library) we have. He also leaves me (and hopefully you) with a challenge to listen to others’ opinions while holding fast to my convictions, considering other views and constantly evaluating my own. He leaves us with a challenge to learn. And I hope I am up for that challenge.


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 Allison Toy is a freelance editor and writer in Waco, Texas. She is a Registered Nurse and passionate about both the medical field and the publishing world. She is an avid fan of chocolate and kittens and good books, and she’ll never turn down a cup of coffee and the opportunity to hear someone’s story. Allison is one of the co-founders of Karat Magazine. You can find more of her personal story on her website, www.allisontoy.com.

 

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