60 Years of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

‘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.’

bradbury1This 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.

bradburyBut 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.

About these ads

74 thoughts on “60 Years of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

  1. This is a great post!! I’m a huge Ray Bradbury fan. Reading his books, plus watching Ray Bradbury Theater, is one of the main reasons I started writing. The guy is my hero. Again, great post. Loved it! :)

    • Thanks! And I’m glad you enjoyed the post – I wholeheartedly echo what you say about Bradbury. I love your comment on your blog about feeling like Oliver Twist when reading and ‘wanting some more’. Sums it up for me too :)

  2. He was a great writer who tuened to science fiction, rather than a geek per se. His books are not just great stories, they are well written. Plus he was a very sweet, funny man who loved his craft. Thanks for this.

    • Well said, Barb! I see him in a great tradition of American ‘archetypal’ storytellers – along with Irving, Poe, Hawthorne. The kind of stories/novels you read and think, ‘I wish I’d thought of that.’ Only few could do it so well as Bradbury. Great man and writer :)

  3. As a bookseller, I specialize in dystopian literature, and Ray Bradbury is probably the single biggest reason for that. Fahrenheit 451 remains a favorite of mine. Thank you for this well-written tribute. An interesting note to add – an ‘asbestos’ edition of this title was released in a limited run, and is quite collectible. It is bound in a material made to emulate the fire-resistant compound.

    • Thanks very much for the comment – it’s much appreciated. I never knew that about the ‘asbestos’ edition! That’s a superb little gem of a fact, and a witty move on the part of the publishers. (I’m glad it wasn’t real asbestos – that would have caused a few problems and made me question the idea that reading is good for you!)

      I’m working on some (preliminary) research into dystopian literature at the moment (mainly of the late 19th and early 20th centuries), so may have to browse your online bookshelf soon :)

  4. I had to study this book at school. And hated it like poison. I just couldn’t get my head around the book burning. Over the years, though my opinion has changed and it’s well worth a read.
    Gret post. I’m off to get a new copy!

    • Hurrah! Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you like this book now – I think being made to study it at school means you don’t ‘discover’ it, and it was very important (for me, at least) that I found Bradbury in my own time and of my own accord. I need to reread it soon – may have to clear the weekend!

  5. Have you seen the recently published edition… I forgot who did it but the cover for it is simply amazing. It’s great to see ‘the classics’ with a new coat of paint. It means that someone, somewhere crunched the numbers and saw that we are not alone in our love.

    • I think I know the one – is the cover slightly orangey? It’s much more eye-catching than the rather dull Voyager Classics edition I have (which was part of a series where all the books had the same cover design)!

      • Yeah and the cover is dominated by a book that is half book, half matches? It seems in the last five years the book covers have been steadily moving away from the rather dull Signet Classics sort of look to more zany. I remember seeing a recently reissued Albert Camus set where the covers were different white and black shapes. Too cool.

  6. I met Ray in Los Angeles when my son was in one of his plays. He told an anecdote about the screenplay for “Moby Dick” that was so characteristic of the man’s lack of affectation and sense of honesty with the ability to laugh at his own inadequacies. For that anecdote and some other interesting anecdotes about the filming of “Moby Dick” follow this link.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moby_Dick_(1956_film).

    • Super! Thanks for this link, Bill, and for the lovely comment. I think ‘clichaically’ may be a Googlewhack: http://is.gd/QUveCq – I couldn’t think of a nice adverbial form of cliched (‘clichedly’?). Wonder if it’ll catch on – if it does, remember to direct the OED to this blog…

      I’d heard about that rather bad 1956 movie of Moby-Dick but had forgotten Bradbury’s involvement (I remember hearing something about it last year, when he died, and newspapers were talking about his ‘highlights’ – and lowlights, I guess!). I must confess I haven’t ever been able to read Moby-Dick either – not all the way through – so I empathise with Bradbury! I’m green with envy that you met him. By all accounts he was a lovely man as well as a wonderful writer.

  7. Nicely written, thank you, InterestingLit. Bradbury is an anomaly even in the anomalous world of sci-fi writers–his books and stories, by and large, are as much about magic and fantasy as they were about science, space, and the future. Were his career to start today, he would be among the category ‘soft-sci-fi’, or even ‘sword and sorcery’. You mention his presagement of modern-day tech such as flat screen tv–and no one could ever accuse Bradbury of not having a big imagination–but he used science as a writer would, to tell a story about people–but this is not the same as Jules Verne’s submarine or Clarke’s com-sat patent.
    As far as his title goes, I see little to quibble over–Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ is certainly about more than either of those things–and titles in general, like cover art, are never to be too strongly compared with the contents therein–never judge a book… and all that sort of thing.
    Thanks again–enjoyed your post.

    • Thanks for the comment! I think you’re right about the title, but I couldn’t resist pointing out that bit of trivia all the same. I also agree with what you say about Bradbury in many ways a fantasy writer, a storyteller who was interested in people rather than in science per see. I plan to dig out his Golden Apples of the Sun collection again soon. Maybe that will inspire another post on him…

  8. This was a wonderful and informative post. It filled in a lot of blanks for me. I’ve always love his work, especially the shrt story, ‘something wicked this way comes.’

    • Thanks Beth! I couldn’t ask for higher praise, and it’s really much appreciated. And I second what you say about ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ – in fact, your mentioning it has inspired me to reread it, which is what I’m off to do now :)

  9. He was such a beautiful and brave and good man. He inspired me for life. Thank you for encouraging everyone to read “Fahrenheit 451″ – people – read this, read his short stories, read his novels, read it all. They’re gorgeous.

    • Excellent advice, and I will follow it myself (there’s still so much of Bradbury’s work I haven’t discovered). Thanks for commenting, and I agree – if I can encourage people to read this great novel, my time on this blog has been very well spent.

  10. A great article. I am a fan of sci-fi, with my main exposure to it through Philip K. Dick. I have recently purchased Nineteen Eighty-Four, and hope to work my way through many of the classics. Thanks again =)

    • You’ve got a treat ahead of you. I’d also recommend Brave New World if you’ve not already experienced its delights, but also the E. M. Forster story ‘The Machine Stops’ (a dystopian short story from earlier in the 20th century, and really good). Thanks for the nice comment!

      • I have meant to, as Aldous Huxley rates highly in every sci-fi list I’ve ever found.

        Huzzah! My local has some copies hiding in the shop. I think I’m due for another book.

        Thanks for the recommendation

  11. This was a lovely read. I bought and read Fahrenheit earlier this year and it has become one of my favourite books. I bought the 50th anniversary edition so, upon reading his Preface, was still under the impression that he was still alive. I regret not knowing of his work sooner. He really was such an inspirationally beautiful writer.

  12. Just seeing the title makes me think of folks reciting the books they have chosen to memorize and remember so they will not die forever.

  13. I love the book, it is one of my favorite books. The tranquil nature of the tale, the apparent normality with which the insanity is described. And then the wonderful development, as Monday learns to love books. Love books, like i do. Incidentally, it is one of the few stories filmed where I want to be considered the film. Oscar Werner is Monday from history, and Truffaut’s just a master of his craft.

      • For me, the subject of Mondays woman who due to their addiction to TV lost any resemblance to a sentient being, found, copied infinitely, in Brave New World again. There is the society that has lost the ability to feelings. Which smiling their daily drug use and cheering their own genetic and human deformation.

  14. A wonderful article on a wonderful novel. I guess we can all think of one book that affected us more than the others – mine was this one, and ten years after reading it, I would still say that Fahrenheit 451 is my favourite novel.

  15. Pingback: The Twelve Best Facts from a Year of Interesting Literature | Interesting Literature

  16. Pingback: A Belated Valentines To My Fangirls (and Boys): Book Crush Time! | Storyteller in the Digital Age

  17. Pingback: True or False? Take our April Fool’s Literary Quiz | Interesting Literature

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s