September 6, 2016 stefivos

Fahrenheit 451 is not the temperature at which books burn; but still…

According to author Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 is “the temperature at which book-paper catches fire, and burns”, but this is not quite right. “Several Internet contrarians claim that Bradbury confused Celsius and Fahrenheit, putting his estimate off by 391 Fahrenheit degrees. They cite as evidence the Handbook of Physical Testing of Paper, which lists paper’s ignition temperature as 450 degrees Celsius.” [1]

But this is really not important at all.

Bradbury was in his early teens when the Nazis started burning black-listed books in Germany and he was in his thirties when McCarthy’s witch-hunt of commies caused a violent turbulence in the United States. In 1951, he wrote the short story “The Fireman” and, two years later, he stretched it to the famous novel “Fahrenheit 451”, in which firemen no longer put out fires, but burn books.

To be honest, I was not delighted by Bradbury’s story-telling techniques, but I was utterly captivated by Captain Beatty’s admonishing speech to Guy Montag (the main character of the book) where he tries to justify the burning of the books, although well-read himself.

The book was written 63 years ago, but the messages conveyed by Bradbury’s/Beatty’s words seem as timely as ever:

“Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!”

“School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”

“More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? Organize and organize and superorganize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience. Highways full of crowds going somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, nowhere. The gasoline refugee. Towns turn into motels, people in nomadic surges from place to place, following the moon tides, living tonight in the room where you slept this noon and I the night before.”

“With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual’, of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar.”

“Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely.”

The most astonishing parallel I could draw between Bradbury’s world and ours is that no one in his world forbade the reading of books. People just stopped reading them because they made them think, hence doubt everything and be sad. In Bradbury’s world, people just wanted to be carefree and happy, so they turned to other sources for pleasure, like TV of course.

Does it ring a bell?

As Bradbury wrote: 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?

Fahrenheit 451 is a must-read and it is only about 166 pages long. Are you going to be bothered?

[1] Does Paper Really Burn at 451 Degrees Fahrenheit?

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