“Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury – what dystopian novels warn us about our own society

Dystopian books have a long and interesting history. They are usually versions of the future that tell us something about the present. The most obvious example of that is 1984 by George Orwell but I would also include The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Z for Zachariah by Robert C O’Brien, Blind Faith by Ben Elton and The Road byCormac McCarthy. There are many more. None of these make for easy reading and they all pinpoint something important in the way that we currently live and offer a warning about the future. I’ve read all these books and others in a similar vein and none of them are cheerful !

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is a dystopian novel. It is often described as science fiction but the technology in the story is all with us today, although it might not have been when the book was written. The temperature in the title is supposed to be that at which paper ignites, for this is a story about book burning. Firemen in this story, which was written in 1953, set light to hidden books rather than put out fires. The aim is to create a society of people who are numbed by media and unable to think for themselves – independent thought is outlawed. Our everyman hero Guy Montag starts keeping books for himself and reading them instead of destroying them. This causes him to grasp new thoughts and he can’t resist sharing them with others, which turns out to be a mistake.

I’ve read this book before but more recently I listened to it on audiobook and found it to be even more powerful than I had remembered. We take for granted the idea that we can read whatever we want but the hallmark of a totalitarian society through the ages has been to shut down dissent and independent thought and it does this often by book burning and/or persecuting writers and more recently by shutting down webpages and access to the Internet. Bradbury’s hero finds a group of resisters who are tackling this issue by finding books and memorising them. The book ends with a slightly hopeful message.

This is a short and focussed book with a message delivered in a punchy style. It has quite an impact and was almost certainly written to help people understand the importance of opposing censorship in all its forms. If you haven’t read this book I suggest you do – it’s a classic of its type.