Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A difficult review to write, given the recent passing of Ray Bradbury and my childhood devotion to his works. I have always had Fahrenheit 451 on my shelf, always unread. I have a few unread Bradbury books on my shelf, as I have always wanted some to discover for the first time (as a child, one of my first understood implications of mortality was that my favourite writers would one day not be there to offer new books for me - a selfish notion, perhaps, but children are selfish creatures).
So, Fahrenheit 451 - Bradbury’s masterpiece, by most accounts - a short book I thought I would devour in one sitting, and a book it took me some days to finish. I approached this book as an adult, and my adult opinion is that Bradbury’s greatest strength was that he never grew up, he always saw and described our world through the eyes of a child - and Fahrenheit 451 is a book of far more weighty themes.
I found two difficulties with this novel: the first is that it’s written in the beautiful and lyrical prose of Ray Bradbury, yet seen through the eyes of a protagonist who has never read a book. Where does Montag, our viewpoint character, get the tools to describe his world so poetically, in a world where books are banned and burned? Secondly, the novel is no such thing - it is (and I never knew this until I finished it, though I could tell the pacing and plotting was somehow ‘off’) a fix-up of separate short stories, melded together into a novel; for me, this doesn’t work. The plot lurches from one section to the other, and some character traits and motivations are wobbly and inconsistent as a result. There are other, more minor, faults - the fact that Montag meets exactly the right people in the right order at the right time to service the plot is probably old-fashioned melodrama by the time of the 1950s, and the nuclear finale seems rushed and unconvincing.
That’s not to say this is a bad book. It’s probably best read at a younger age, where its naivete is diminished (I shall be handing my copy down to my daughter), and it doesn’t travel as well into adulthood as almost any other of Bradbury’s wonderful works. His prescience of the modern world - the public devotion and identification with soap opera and reality TV, and the insular world of the iPod - is scarily accurate, and the main theme of book suppression and burning seems less science fiction today than it might have done when the book was published. And, if nothing else, this is a book of wonderful and beautiful prose by the master of the style. Ray Bradbury wrote like no one else, and he did it for a lifetime. If nothing else, there’s that.
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