02 February 2014

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can't believe I waited until I was 31 to read this. Then again, maybe I wouldn't have appreciated it as much as I did. Below were some quotes I saved and annotated:
"Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that!" –Beatty, toward the end of “The Hearth and the Salamander”

Judging from the other “minorities” Bradbury put in this list, I doubt the inclusion of Mormons was much more than arbitrary. Still, I find it kind of funny, because, as a white male Mormon, I doubt that throwing my name out there as a minority would win much sympathy. If anything, it’s Mormons that some minorities feel threatened by, and whose perspective no book, play, or TV serial is worried about representing correctly.

"Outside the door, in the rain, a faint scratching.” –from the beginning of “The Sieve and the Sand”

Obviously this line isn’t memorable for its message. It struck me because it’s incomplete. Bradbury is breaking the rules -- rules I teach my students -- but that doesn’t matter because it works. I would have written something like “Outside the door, in the rain, came a faint scratching.” One word difference. Why does his missing verb have more impact? It adds to the tension, the immediacy. My version’s “came” feels rote and redundant and robs the impact of the word “scratching,” maybe just a bit. That’s surprising and maybe even a little frustrating to me, because I have a feeling it has something to do with the difference between literary writing and regular, commercial, boring writing like mine. Hmph.

“It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlor families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.” –Faber to Montag in “The Sieve and the Sand”

I appreciate that Bradbury voices this concession through more than one character in the book -- Faber here, then Granger in the end. It reminds me of a great essay by Mortimer Adler, “How to Mark a Book,” which reminds us that there are different ways to own a book, and that the most superficial of these is literal. Like Granger and his gang, Adler wants us to own books by remembering their messages, even if it means writing in them -- defacing them, some might say (and they’d be missing the point).

“Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.
“So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life.” –Faber to Montag in “The Sieve and the Sand” (continuing above discussion)

This little tip on writing is like a buried treasure to me, especially after noting earlier that Bradbury’s writing possesses a free-spirited, literary quality that I envy.

“What traitors books can be! you think they’re backing you up, and they turn on you. Others can use them, too, and there you are, lost in the middle of the moor, in a great welter of nouns and verbs and adjectives.” –Beatty to Montag, toward the end of “The Sieve and the Sand”

Beatty is a powerful villain because he knows. He knows how the heroes think. He knows what’s important to them. Here he sounds a bit like someone who has sworn off religion because it all contradicts itself. I would have to agree with him, only unlike him, I believe there exists a correct interpretation and authority that man can’t manufacture on his own.

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