“It was a pleasure to burn.”
In a future society, books are forbidden and “firemen” responsible for burning the remaining titles. That’s the job of one Guy Montag, but he begins to question his role as he gets in contact with a teenager who reads secretly. And he becomes himself a criminal reader of smuggled books.
The most surprising thing about Fahrenheit 451 is that it’s premise could, in the hands of a lesser writer, easily turn a condescending little lesson about the importance of reading books. But like any work of art that would be missed if it was burned, Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t want to give you answers. The book wants you to ask questions.
The main point for me is not that books are burned. That is only the most dramatic side of something bigger: that society allows them to be burned, and that no one is interested in reading in the first place. The only sources of distraction for the denizens of Fahrenheit 451 are sports or soap operas in televisions the size of entire walls. The speed of television does not allow you to stop and think, just swallow that entertainment loaf. From this insipid entertainment are born people who literally talk to the walls and a society unable to question.
Montag’s wife, Mildred is one example. She can’t talk about anything other than the soaps or what threatens her financial security. She is a cattle-person, described as having an invisible cataract behind her pupils, afraid of anything different, incapable of thinking or feeling without directions from the TV or authorities. Montag discovers how they can’t connect to one another because in the end they don’t know their own history. And without that knowledge you can’t even know who you are, or what you want.
Today is 2015, and the society described in Fahrenheit 451 seems even more palpable than when the book was written in 1953. The internet shortens our attention span towards shorter and simpler texts and videos. More than ever we more intelligent – we have access to an ocean of information literally at our finger tips – but we are not wise. We don’t know what to do with our information.
And we have no memory. The social media timelines dictate the discussion of the day, what funny video is trending, what news we should be disgusted with, what meme will be the big joke for a day or two before it is once again forgotten. Fahrenheit 451 even reminds us of the “mass society judgments” that lead to self-censorship.
I believe reading is fundamentally important for wisdom, more than any other art form. Reading is solitary work. It demands silence, and to let your ideas absorb the author’s, contest them, accept or adapt. Fahrenheit 451 says that you can’t make others think, but I believe it comes with a good recipe for wisdom: “Number one, like I said, is quality of information. Number two: time to digest. And number three: the right to conduct your actions based on what we learn from the two previous items.”