I read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury—again—as my classic for a month, and I don’t know what it was, but it hit me harder than ever, like a punch in the gut. Most of you, hopefully, know the basic plot line: firemen burn books. Because, you know, we wouldn’t want anybody to read anything that’s even slightly offensive to anyone else. Well our hero, Montag, is a fireman who starts questioning his mission, which leads to saving the occasional book, which leads to reading that occasional book, which leads to…naturally…disillusionment of the world he lived in. Ray Bradbury was practically prophetic when he wrote this book. Here are a few of my takeaways:
- Happiness: This world has become so reliant on immediate gratification, on moments of joy, that they forget that happiness comes from within, not without. They depend on their moving pictures and the fantasy of TV(or parlour walls—and how long will it take until we are immersing ourselves in a 4-D TV experience?) to feel fulfilled: “What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say, Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation?” (92 of 249). And how well does that work, really? Montag’s wife commits suicide because she’s so unhappy. Not that she would admit it. And she’s not the only one. The girl that starts to change everything for Montag, Clarisse, asks him straight out, “Are you happy?” And then Montag starts thinking, another takeaway from this book.
- Thinking: Thinking has been done away with in this world and, let’s face it, pretty much in ours as well. I mean, we think on some level, but how much deep thinking do we actually do? How often do we think about the world and its mysteries, analyze life, analyze ourselves? Not often enough: “More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience. Highways full of crowds going somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, nowhere” (88 of 249). Are you hearing this? It’s like Bradbury reached forward and plucked a moment from our present. People don’t want to think, they want mindless entertainment, something to keep them from contemplating themselves and the world. Look at today: people would rather watch the latest reality music show than inform themselves on politics. It’s a mess. And the thing is, it’s not like it’s an evil plot by a government or a powerful group that’s trying to brainwash the public into not thinking. People do it to themselves. We are willingly damning ourselves. Burning ourselves. Like the books.
- Offense: People like to be offended. It’s the truth. There is always somebody, somewhere just waiting to cry foul. We all know it’s true. The books have to be destroyed because they offend someone. And the Bible offended the most people. Nobody wants to be told that they’re wrong: “For there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against” (90 of 249). Because that would mean—gasp!—contemplating themselves. People with self-knowledge are few and far between, whether it’s in this eerily accurate futuristic account or the current world we live in. And I’m here to tell you that people should judge themselves a little more harshly. It would not hurt us to try to be better.
You see, these people are not really burning books, they—and us—are burning ourselves. Our individuality and thought and contemplation. Our world. We are ignoring it in favor of fun. Fun that runs out, making us more miserable than ever because—and this is the truth, the truest, most awful revelation of the book—we are selfish. We are selfish. We want somebody else to be in charge of our happiness. We are entitled to our happiness. We want to please ourselves. And we don’t make the connection, even now after centuries, after millennia of existence, that happiness is something we must choose, that it comes through selflessness and giving and charity. We must choose to be happy, and that choice is a burden and responsibility that people just can’t handle: “Come on now, we’re going to go build a mirror-factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them” (248 of 249).