Even by extreme standards of dystopian fiction, the premise of Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451 can seem a little unreasonable. The firefighter whose job it is to burn? A society that bans all books? Written less than a decade after the fall of the Third Reich, which announced its evil intentions by burning books, this novel explicitly evokes the kind of totalitarianism that seeks to destroy cultures—and entire nations—with fire. But even the Nazis didn’t ban all books. Not a few academics and writers survived or thrived in Nazi Germany relying on ideological orthodoxy (or at least not against it), which, for all its monstrous irrationalism, bears a resemblance to the intellectual stratum.
This novel is also reminiscent of the various repressions of the Soviet state. But the Party apparatus also allowed the publishing industry to operate, under its strict limits. Nonetheless, Soviet censorship is legendary, as is the survival of forbidden literature through self-publishing and memorization, which is vividly represented by the famous line in Mikhail Bulgokov’s work. Mr and Margaritas“The script doesn’t burn.”
Bulgakov, wrote Nathaniel Rich at Guernica, said that “great literature… fire retardant. It survives criticism, censorship, and even time travel.” Bulgakov wrote from a painful experience. When his diary was discovered by the NKVD in 1929 and returned to him, he “immediately burned it.” Some time later, during the posthumous composition of his novel, he burned the manuscript, then reassembled it from memory.
These examples are reminiscent of the exiled intellectuals in Bradbury’s novels, who had memorized entire books to one day reconstruct literary culture. Europe’s totalitarian regimes provide an important backdrop for the novel’s plot and imagery, but its central context, Bradbury himself noted in a 1956 radio interview, was the anti-Communist paranoia of the US in the early 1950s. “Too many people are afraid of their shadow,” he said, “there is the threat of burning books. Many books were taken off the shelves at that time.” Reading novels as visions of a harrowing future when all books are banned and burned makes the artifact described above very poignant—the edition of Fahrenheit 451 bonded in refractory asbestos.
Released in 1953 by Ballantine in a limited number of two hundred signed copies, the books were “bound at Johns-Manville Qinterra,” notes Lauren Davis at io9, “chrysolite asbestos material.” Now the flame-retardant enclosure, with “extraordinary resistance to pyrolysis”, is “highly sought after by collectors” and costs over $20,000. Fireproof Fahrenheit 451, on the one hand, can seem a bit gimmicky (after all, the pages are still on). But it is also the perfect manifestation of the novel’s literal interpretation as a story about book banning and burning. All of us who have read this novel most likely read it like this, as a vision of a repressive totalitarian nightmare. As such, it feels like the product of a mid-twentieth century fright.
Rather than fear mass book burning, we seem, in the 21st century, on the verge of drifting into a sea of information (and dis- and mis-information). We are so inundated with writing—in print and online—that some of us are desperate to never find time to read through the piles of books and articles that pile up every day around us, physically and virtually. But even though books are still published in the millions, with sales going up, down, then up again, the number of people actually reading seems to be in danger of rapidly decreasing. And this, Bradbury said, was his real fear. “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture,” he says, “just get people to stop reading them.”
We misread Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury told us in the years that followed. It is an allegory, a symbolic representation of a society that is very stupid, very oppressive and destructive in its own way. The firefighters were not actual government agents, but symbols of the power of the masses’ distraction, which spread “facts,” lies, and half-truths in lieu of knowledge. The novel, he said, was actually about people who were “turned into fools by TV.” Add to that the entertainment breed of online worlds, video games, etc and we can see Bradbury Fahrenheit 451 not as an archaic representation of the fascism of the ’40s or the repression of the ’50s, but as an all-too-relevant warning to a distracted society that devalues and destroys education and factual knowledge even when we have more access than ever before to any kind of literature.
Ray Bradbury Reveals The True Meaning of Fahrenheit 451: It’s Not About Censorship, But People Are “Turned Into Fools By TV”
Ray Bradbury Explains Why Literature is Civilization’s Safety Valve (In This Case We Need More Literature!)
Helen Keller Writes Letters to Nazi Students Before They Burn Her Book: “History Teaches You Nothing If You Think You Can Kill Ideas” (1933)
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him on @jdmagness