“Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?” asks Clarisse in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the 2003 One Book chosen for Eastern Connecticut.
Most boomers will remember this classic work of science fiction, first published fifty years ago, when Ike was in the White House, we were at war in Korea, and the Army McCarthy hearings were beginning. Casual references to cigarette smoking are the only clue that “the present” is 1953 instead of 2003.
Firemen are called out to burn books rather than save them because reading books can cause unhappiness. As the Fire Chief explains to Montag,
“You always dread the unfamiliar. We must all be alike. Each man the image of every other, then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it!”
On February 20, 2003, the same day I re-read Fahrenheit 451, I also read a piece by Brent Staples in the NY Times. He decries the corporate buy-up of radio stations, which has resulted in the disappearance of local stations in favor of conglomerates which all have the same playbook. Staples’ point is that the songs of protest, which fueled much of the political activity of the Sixties, would never be heard today. Crosby, Stills, & Nash were able to get airtime for Ohio just weeks after Kent State, but now there are hardly any independent stations left to introduce alternative music, let alone the music of protest.
Fireman in Bradbury’s futuristic California landscape have to burn books because books, unlike the “parlour walls,” are not all the same; they offer too many different points of view. They make people think, talk to each other about what they are thinking, and maybe even act on those thoughts.
As Montag says to his wife, while she sits staring at the video “friends” beamed in through the parlor walls, “We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?
Don’t be alone. Join other readers in Eastern Connecticut in reading and talking about something important, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.