Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Five stars for concept. 3 stars for execution. 2 stars for pacing.
I will say up front that I can absolutely see why so many middle schools and high schools choose this book to include as part of their curriculum. As I was reading, I could imagine the types of essay questions that English teachers love to pose just springing out of the text: Choose a literature quotation from the novel and discuss the role it plays in developing the novel's themes. Discuss differences between dynamic and static characters in the book. Write about two of the following symbols: the Mechanical Hound, the salamander, fire, the subway, the sieve and the sand, the river.
However, I didn't read this book as part of my secondary education. I read it for pleasure. I read it because I was recently impressed by what I read from Bradbury, and this was one of those books of "classic literature" that was missing from my repertoire. And so many people love it!
Which brings me to a real problem: I hate when books (or movies, or anything really) are hyped before I read them, because I'm almost always disappointed. Farenheit 451, alas, was no exception. The concept was brilliant, and remains amazingly relevant in today's society. With our smartphones and video game consoles and computers and reality TV, our attention spans are shorter than ever. We want the condensed versions, and Reader's Digest won't do; say it in 140 characters or less, or no one will listen! We're all about headlines and captions, videos instead of articles, television instead of books. Poor books. They always seemed so threatened.
However, the main character's shift into rebellion happened too soon for me. I wanted to know more about how he became a firefighter, what his life was like before and why he was so contented with it before he met Clarisse. Why couldn't he just dismiss her as a silly little girl? Well, presumably because he was already on his way down the mental path of subversion, so what got him there? Unhappiness? Mildred was clearly unhappy, but she managed to wall herself in (pun intended) with distractions and diversions. What was so different about Montag?
Then, I assume that Montag's murdering Beatty was the climax, but then maybe that happened when the Mechanical Hound caught the other poor soul instead of Montag, so he knew he was finally "free." Or when the nuclear bomb went off? I just never felt the arc of the story quite vividly enough, so it prevented me from caring strongly what happened next. And for such a short book, there was so much rumination! I feel like so much that is there could be condensed, while so many details and scenes could have been added.
As a wise and reflective writer, Bradbury addresses some of these points in the Q&A that comes at the end of the 50th Anniversary Edition I read. And he's right: you shouldn't go back and change up the book when you're older and wiser. It needs to stay true to itself. So I'm not sorry I read it. I'm just sorry it wasn't quite the novel I thought it would be.
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