‘I heard this typing. I went down in the basement of the UCLA library and by God there was a room with 12 typewriters in it that you could rent for 10 cents a half-hour. And there were eight or nine students in there working away like crazy.’
This was Ray Bradbury, speaking about the genesis of his most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451, published sixty years ago this year. According to the writer himself, he went to the bank and got a heap of change in dimes. Then he went to the basement and started to put dimes into one of the typewriters, topping it up every half-hour. Nine days later, he’d written a short story, ‘The Fireman’, which would develop into Fahrenheit 451. And the rest, as they clichaically say, is history.
Fahrenheit 451 tells of a ‘fireman’, Guy Montag – who, ironically, goes about setting fire to things rather than helping to put fires out. More specifically, it is his job to set fire to books, which are outlawed in the dystopian future world depicted by Bradbury’s novel. The first line of the novel reads, ‘It was a pleasure to burn.’ Ever since that first line, Bradbury’s novel has taken its place alongside Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four as one of the classic dystopian novels of the twentieth century. It was successful almost immediately. In 1954, the year after the novel was published, it was serialised in – of all places – Playboy magazine, helping it to reach an even wider audience.
The book was published in 1953 at the height of the McCarthy ‘witch hunts’ in the US, and this culture of suppression and censorship, as Bradbury himself attested, is what helped to inspire the book, even though its meaning encompasses more general concerns about book-burning and the tyranny and suppression which that act signifies. The book was published eight years after the end of the Second World War, and it is worth remembering that book-burnings were an important part of the early years of national socialism in Germany. As Heinrich Heine had noted over a century before, ‘Wherever books are burned, men also, in the end, are burned.’ Holocaust, of course, means ‘whole burning’.
It is singularly apt, though, that it was the McCarthy witch hunts which inspired the book, given that the other great work of literature to respond to McCarthyism is probably Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, which uses the Salem witch trials of the 1690s as an allegory for the anti-Communist ‘witch hunts’ of the 1950s. Bradbury was actually descended from one of the Salem ‘witches’, Mary Perkins Bradbury, who was sentenced to be hanged in 1692 but managed to escape before her execution could take place.
The novel, as is well known, is named for the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns: 451 degrees Fahrenheit. But there’s a problem. There is no set temperature at which all book paper ignites. In the course of his research for the book. Bradbury talked with a fireman (a regular one, rather than of the Guy Montag type) who told him that book paper catches fire and burns at 451 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale, and thus the title was born. But as a recent Slate article observes, it would be more accurate to say that book paper catches fire at around 480 degrees Fahrenheit, but even this isn’t quite true. If you put a thick book into an oven preheated to 480 degrees, it would still take the book a while to start burning. In truth, there is no set auto-ignition point for all book paper. It depends on how old the book is, how big it is, the thickness of the paper – a number of factors.
But enough pedantry. Bradbury got many things right. His biographer, who bears the pleasingly Dickensian name of Sam Weller, has noted that, in Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury predicted a raft of later technological developments, among them flat-screen televisions, iPod earbuds, Bluetooth headsets, ATMs, and rolling news. Even Facebook – given that people converse via a digital ‘wall’ in Bradbury’s novel – seems to have been eerily and prophetically prefigured in this novel. Despite his talent for predicting the ways in which technology would progress, Bradbury was sceptical of many recent developments, such as the internet and electronic books (hardly surprising, given the subject of Fahrenheit 451). He only allowed his landmark novel to be published as an e-book in November 2011.
The book also, in a sense, predicted its own fate: although there is no record of its having been officially burned anywhere, it has been banned on several occasions, notably in several schools in the US owing to its use of such words as ‘hell’, ‘damn’, and ‘abortion’. Bradbury’s own publisher, Ballantine Books, even issued a censored version, which is surely the height of irony.
It is unclear whether the term ‘butterfly effect’ (whereby small and localised actions can have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences) was intended as an allusion to Bradbury’s short story ‘A Sound of Thunder’ (1952), whose plot was memorably used in an episode of The Simpsons. It is unlikely, though, since Bradbury’s novel involves the inadvertent killing of a butterfly (an action which drastically alters the future) whereas the term ‘butterfly effect’ usually refers to the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings and the ways in which this can alter events many miles away.
Bradbury had got his first important break as a writer in the late 1930s, while he was still a teenager. He submitted a story to Mademoiselle magazine, where a young assistant editor by the name of Truman Capote read Bradbury’s story, ‘Homecoming’, and recommended to his editor that it be published.
Bradbury never learned to drive and his wife, Maggie, was the only woman he ever dated. He branded Michael Moore a ‘horrible human being’ (among other epithets) for appropriating the title of his novel for Moore’s film, Fahrenheit 911 – something Moore had done without seeking Bradbury’s permission. Bradbury died in June 2012, at the age of 91. His headstone reads simply, ‘Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451‘.
Those yet to discover the delights of Bradbury’s prose should immediately acquire a copy of this, probably his most celebrated book, if not his masterpiece. Who cares if the title is scientifically slightly erroneous? Its significance, like that other great numerical title of the era, Catch-22, has taken on a life of its own.
It is a pleasure to read.