Reading by Ear: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
read by Christopher Hurt


Like many American teenagers, my first exposure to Fahrenheit 451 came in high school, although Bradbury was definitely a staple of those reading anthologies I was assigned during my primary education. (I once got to go to the room where they kept all the textbooks they handed out. It was magical.) It was used in my freshman English class, where the teacher played the Empire Today jingle ad nauseum while the students were talking, to illustrate the difficulty of Montag trying to memorize the Bible on the subway. That was eight years ago (man!), so it was high time to revisit this classic sci-fi novel.

Fahrenheit 451 takes place in the near-future, where firemen do not prevent fires, but start them—in particular, they burn books, long banned by the government but difficult to eliminate. Guy Montag is a fireman’s fireman; he enjoys his work and, more importantly, he never, ever asks questions. That is, until he meets his new neighbor, a teenage girl named Clarice whose family rejects the high-speed, high-violence mainstream and prefers to… talk. With just the one seed of doubt planted, Montag begins to question his world. And in a world without books, the simple act of questioning can bring the whole system down… although not without a fight.

I haven’t read Bradbury since I was a kid, so I can’t really compare Fahrenheit 451 to any of his other works. I can, however, remember how his writing style struck me as a young wombat—so clear and easy to read. This impression persists, revisiting this as an adult, but I can see its purpose now. Montag himself is simple; for all of his newfound awakening to the potential of books, he can’t read them properly, which is the impetus for the second half of the novel. The language lifts a little towards the end, as Montag makes at least a little progress, but for the most part, we’re in Montag’s head as he realizes that there are alternatives to the kind of the world he’s living in. And I think it’s that that keeps Fahrenheit 451 fresh sixty years later; while it is idea sci-fi in its one spectacular piece of worldbuilding, Bradbury is ultimately exploring the impact of that idea (books have been banned) on an individual (Montag, the everyman) and on a society (America in the not-too distant future).

And, tellingly, the problems of Montag’s society can’t be cured by books. At the midpoint of the novel, we meet Faber, a cowardly ex-English professor who becomes Montag’s mentor for a brief period. Montag, who can read the books but not understand them, comes to him to learn, and Faber warns him about the dangers of idolizing books. Back in the day (the chronology is a little vague; Montag and other characters his age seems to have never known a world without criminalized texts, but the shift seems more recent than their lifetimes), when we had books, Faber tells Montag, we still couldn’t get over our petty squabbles. And the problem isn’t the evil state oppressing the virtuous people; the problem isn’t just censorship, it’s self-censorship. Faber relates how books become criminalized, which is a story of political correctness gone mad, as texts are removed for being offensive, and aided by the numbing effects of mass media; who needs books when you can turn your living room into another world with the help of wall-to-wall screens? It’s not books that are important, Faber says. It’s the application of the knowledge in them. The tragedy here is not the banning of books, but the obliteration of analytical thought, all started by the people themselves.

I listened to this audiobook while walking the dog in December, so now it’s intricately linked to breath fog, the cold, and being bundled up in a coat older than I am. Despite being the inveterate solitary chatterer that I am, I said nothing back to the audiobook except: “But Father Ray, we have our teeth now!” Bradbury was an infamous Luddite until his death, and much of his ire in Fahrenheit 451 is expressed through the character of Mildred, Montag’s wife, who sends all day either watching what Natalie Angier calls fluffernutter entertainment in order to repress her suicidal impulses. All new media is suspicious inherently inferior, and most importantly, overpowering in Bradbury’s worldview. Montag’s boss, Captain Beatty, dismisses books for their disparate viewpoints, but it’s that disparity that gives the reader power to choose which knowledge is more important. But new media offers only a single comforting and obliterating viewpoint, designed to distract people from the horrible fact of their existence. Perhaps this was true, in the fifties, but as a fan who always had, in some form or another, her critical teeth in, a text is a text is a text—be it televisual or literary or cinematic or musical, any text is as capable of heart-wrenching transcendence as it is of utter, painful rot. And I have the tools to dissect every last one of them. As Angier says, too much fluffernutter will rot your teeth out, and I wholeheartedly agree. But Bradbury believes that all new media is fluffernutter, and I find that so limiting. We don’t need to dismiss popular culture to save ourselves; we need to look it at critically to do so.

Christopher Hurt narrates the audiobook, and his clipped, brutal tones are perfect for the simplicity of Fahrenheit 451’s prose. And, for the very first time, I met some musical accompaniment I actually enjoyed in an audiobook; the theme used is a bit chilling and utilized just enough. Happy holidays to me! But I do find it odd to hear Hurt reading Bradbury’s coda at the end of this edition. I suppose I expected Bradbury himself, which is a bit too much to expect, but it’s hard to reconnect Hurt’s voice to reality after Fahrenheit 451, especially since the coda finds Bradbury at his crankiest, scowling at the history of censorship of the novel itself. Still, it’s quite a nice production, and, since it’s so short, it’s a great audiobook to just pick up.

Plus, the irony of listening to Fahrenheit 451 on your own seashells is almost too delicious to pass up.

Bottom line: Fahrenheit 451 exposes the evils of not only censorship, but self-censorship, in its view of a world where political correctness has gone so wrong that all books are banned and people dive into fluffernutter entertainment to escape the terrible truth of living. Its scathing view of popular culture is dated, but the point remains the same—question everything. Stay vigilant. Know all you can. It’s important. Required reading (or listening).

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

4 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: Fahrenheit 451

  1. You make a good distinction here–there is such a thing as escapist reading, too, and I’ve never understood why some people think reading a mediocre romance novel is better than watching a well-scripted TV show. (Steven Moffat alone shows us that the writing on TV can be better than the writing in a lot of books!)

  2. I enjoy this book in part because it is a dystopian novel, but there is so much hope in the end. That and most dystopian books try to scare the reader with social commentary; Bradbury simply invites is to explore, hoping we’ll learn on our own.

    • I’d have to disagree a bit there, although I agree that Bradbury leaves a spot of hope that modern dystopian novels usually dispense with. Fahrenheit 451 is social commentary on the culture and the possible cultures stemming out of the early 1950s, but since we’ve been dealing with similar issues for the past sixty years, it feels universal and fresh, hence its longevity.

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