Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Book review

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Folio Society, h/b £29.95, Website

Reviewed by Allen Stroud

I’ve never read Fahrenheit 451 until now. It’s one of those books that gets discussed alongside Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Huxley’s Brave New World and seminal works of genre fiction. So, when I learned of the release of a new beautiful slipcase hardback version of Ray Bradbury’s classic science fiction novel, first published in 1953, I immediately volunteered to read and review it.

Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of Guy Montag, a fireman, who lives in a comparable suburbia to fifties America of the time. The job of firemen in Bradbury’s world is to start fires and burn books. Books and knowledge are a source of dissent from the rule of law in Montag’s world and Bradbury’s writing tries to convey the socialised mindset of his protagonist. Montag lives his life with fire and watches written words constantly being consumed and destroyed.

Several moments in Montag’s life shake his resolve and cause him to question his purpose. A chance encounter with a young girl, the attempted suicide of his wife, who subsequently denies the incident ever happened and a short conversation with a woman whose house Montag and his colleague’s burn to the ground because she was hoarding books, are all contributory earthquakes towards Montag’s eventual enlightenment and confrontation with the hegemony that defines the life he leads at the start of the novel. Bradbury reinforces this with awkward, fitful and disjointed prose, that gradually settles as Montag’s world view moves towards ours. In this, Fahrenheit 451 displays a superior quality to its peer, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, although, the style is difficult to get into and makes for initially, difficult reading. Montag and his wife Mildred often talk past each other, saying words, but never listening. The descriptions of the personalised talking walls and the continual re-presentation of information in smaller and smaller ‘chunks’, with virtual relationships prioritised by Mildred above any real relationship she has with her husband are chilling and precognisant when compared to modern social media. When the fragility of Mildred’s personalised cocoon is exposed, the allegory is revealed for us to consider. It is perhaps a shame, that Mildred herself is spirited away in her little car, preventing us from witnessing her struggle to understand the world after her hyperreality has been shattered.

This missing opportunity is a theme of the final part of the story. Fahrenheit 451 is less secure is in its conclusion than Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Orwell’s Winston goes through a transformative process in his confrontation with the state. The outcome of this occurs in the reaction of the state through the various apparatchiks and contexts, resulting in a terrifying ordeal in Room 101 and a dark satire on the sunset-like happy ending common in other stories. Bradbury’s Montag engages in a similar confrontation but does not end up as leading a successful revolution or crushed by the state’s response. Instead, his context is transformed by a use of Chekov’s gun, one of many such devices employed by Bradbury in the novel. In the introduction to the 2003 edition (included in this book), the author mentions some of the revisions made in a successful stage adaptation of the novel that brought back Clarisse, the young girl Montag meet early on in the novel, for a reunion with the fireman. Bradbury describes this device as overly sentimental, but acknowledges if he were to revise the work, it might be something he would do as well. Certainly, there is something unfulfilled in the conclusion of the work, that makes the reader hope for a further exploration of Bradbury’s utopia, which was not forthcoming.

The presentation of this particular edition of Bradbury’s work by The Folio Society under special license from Harpercollins and Simon and Schuster is beautiful. The inclusion of Sam Weber’s full colour illustrations and an introduction by Michael Moorcock, as well as the aforementioned 2003 introduction by Bradbury make this an exquisite treatment of the work. This in itself is something of an irony when considered against the book’s premise – a beautiful book that contains a story about the burning of books.

If you have not read Fahrenheit 451 and were considering it. There is no better edition to read.

The Folio Society edition of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, introduced by Michael Moorcock an illustrated by Sam Weber, is available exclusively from www.foliosociety.com