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June 28, 2013

Telling It Like It Is: FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury

Hey guys, so I decided this week that this whole book thing is pretty stupid. I mean, you spends hours, days, weeks, even, looking at a bunch of tiny words on a flimsy piece of paper (or eBook screens if you’re feeency) and putting them together to make some kind of meaning in your already overwhelmed brain. Frankly, I’d rather keep trying to beat the 114th level of Candy Crush, because let me tell you --- that’s some lasting sa-tis-faction. So this, dear readers, is where we part ways, bid each other a teary adieu, so I can lie in bed all day, mindlessly drinking in my Super Big Gulp and my Real Housewives and refreshing my Facebook browser forever. It’s gonna be the best.

PSYCHE! Classic bait-and-switch opener to introduce this week’s "Telling It Like It Is" book, FAHRENHEIT 451! Figured I’d make you guys feel the heat (heat! see what I did there?) before diving into this bad boy. The Bradbury classic was even more ahead of its time than anyone ever imagined --- it was published in the 1950s, when everyone’s worst fear was that the planet would be homogenized into an empty-headed, self-satisfied Suburbia. Nobody ever thought that our complacence would be linked to an ever-faster internet connection and a bunch of smartphone apps. GUYS, THE FUTURE IS NOW! (Gimme a sec while I tweet that.) Okay, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman in a future dystopic America. "What’s so dystopic about putting out fires?" you’re probably thinking. So much, guys, so much. See, firemen in this future version of America don’t put OUT fires; they start them (which kind of makes sense from a terminologist’s POV)! And if you think that’s weird, it gets even weirder. In this version of the future, people no longer read books or do any kind of introspective thinking. Basically, all they do all day is watch these interactive soap operas on their wall-size TVs and listen to their “Seashell Radios” (little earbuds that are literally attached to their ears --- SOUND FAMILIAR?!). You know that feeling you get after you watch back-to-back-to-back (-to-back, on the darkest of nights) episodes of The Big Bang Theory --- kind of like your brain is the same mushy texture as an overripe banana? That’s pretty much the status quo in these parts. Their houses are entirely fireproof, except, of course, their books, which are considered contraband by law and are destroyed upon discovery. That’s where the firemen come in.

So Montag is one of these mindless fireman types, living his mindless life with his mindless wife. Which doesn’t seem so bad at first, until a perky neighborhood girl, Clarisse McClellan, tags along on his walk home one night and shamelessly parades her curiosity about life and nature and people. She *innocently* asks him if he’s happy with the way things are, which is basically the kiss of death as far as Montag’s concerned. Frankly, I think Clarisse should’ve minded her own beeswax --- live and let live, y’know? --- but then there wouldn’t be much of a story, would there? Montag, newly awakened to the true beauty of the world, returns home to discover that his wife, Mildred, has carelessly overdosed on sleeping pills and is lying comatose on their flame-resistant couch. Not cool, man, not cool. He calls paramedics and is able to pump the drugs out of her before it’s too late.

Montag is starting to get seriously freaked. It doesn’t help that his next book-burning job is at this sweet old lady’s house, and the lady, instead of letting the firemen destroy her stash of books, lights a match and burns herself along with them. Montag’s eyes are opened to the true brutality of his reality (that’s gotta be a rap lyric somewhere, no?). And, to make matters way, way worse, he learns that Clarisse has been hit by a car and killed on impact. No one else is interested in Montag’s increasing awareness (kind of like when you try to talk about Game of Thrones with your friends who don’t watch it [read: who are fools!] and they just stare at you like you’re Tyrion Lannister drunk at your own wedding), so he does the only thing he can do: He turns to books for the answers. See, he’s not as dumb as he looks, and through the years he’d been secretly skimming a book here and there from the houses he was burning and hiding them in his AC vent. He gets so caught up in his reading and his general existential horror that he forgets to show up for work, and his boss, Captain Beatty, pays him an unexpected visit and catches him red-handed. "Read"-handed? I don’t know anymore.

Beatty’s creepy cool about the whole thing, though. He delivers this impassioned speech about how it’s normal for a fireman to want an “exploratory phase” and goes on to tell Montag about why books were banned in the first place. Books were insulting to minorities, Beatty explains, and then, in an effort by writers to be PC, all books started to look exactly the same. But people’s feelings were still getting hurt, and books’ conflicting content was confusing, so society as a whole decided, alright, no other choice now but to burn ‘em all. Makes perfect sense, right? Beatty, in a show of the most condescending kind of benevolence, allows Montag 24 hours to read his books and decide for himself if there’s any value in them (the catch being, of course, that there isn’t really a choice at all --- kind of like when your mom tells you to “clean your room or else!”)

Montag, who for obvious reasons wasn’t really much of a reader growing up, is totally overwhelmed by this ultimatum and seeks help from this random retired professor guy he once bumped into in the park (and who, if we’re being honest, was completely terrified of him). The professor, Faber, another secret book enthusiast, is wary of Montag at first, but eventually comes around. He explains to Montag that the real importance of books is that they provide the reader a more sensitive lens through which to see and experience the joys of the natural world. Books are also important (according to Faber and ME) because they open people’s brains and allow them to think for themselves. The two hatch a two-parted, harebrained scheme: 1) to plant books in the homes of firemen, thereby discrediting the entire profession and 2) to convince Faber’s old printer buddy to start printing books again. And thus, with a desperate song in their hearts and a growing bromance that would make for a hilarious and tender buddy road trip movie, the two get to business.

At home, though, things don’t look as optimistic. Mildred’s friends come over to watch TV with her, and of course one’s more vapid than the next. They’re all super superficial, which starts to get under Montag’s skin a little. Well, a lot. He goes all Robin Williams on them (Dead Poets Society? Anyone?) and reads a really pretty poem, “Dover Beach,” to them. Mildred, panicked, tries to write the whole thing off as standard fireman procedure --- a totally ironic gesture, for real guys --- but her friends are pretty disturbed and don’t buy it. They totter off to tattle on Montag, who’s left to console a distraught Mildred.

With his hopes only growing dimmer, Montag goes to the station to hand over one book to Beatty. It’s more demonstrative than anything else because he still has a secret stash hidden away in his vents. Beatty turns on Montag with a whole bunch of contradicting quotes from various books, intending to demonstrate to Montag the evil nature of books, but only managing to confuse him. What happens next is that s*** really hits that fan. An alarm sounds in the station and the firemen rush off, only to find that the target is MONTAG’S OWN HOUSE. Beatty, for his own sadistic amusement, forces Montag to burn the books out of the place. Mildred ignores Montag’s pleas for help and abandons him, leaving him no choice but to destroy his own home with a flamethrower™. Although Montag is already distraught, Beatty arrests him and continues to berate him, which is apparently more than Montag can handle. In a fit of rage, Montag blasts the chief with his flamethrower, knocks a bunch of the other firemen unconscious and flees the scene, but not before the firehouse’s terrifying mechanical hound attacks him and injects his leg with tranquilizer. He destroys it with his flamethrower and limps away to warn Faber that all there hopes and dreams have literally gone up in flames.

A citywide manhunt for Montag begins, with a news crew and another crazy mechanical dog hot on his trail. When Montag finally reaches Faber’s house in the nick of time, the professor urges him to escape to the countryside and live in exile among a ragtag group of fellow outcast intellectuals (just saying, the Simpsons did it). The two split up, thereby disappointing my dreams forever of a spinoff, and Faber goes to find his printer friend, while Montag floats down a muddy river to find salvation outside of the city. He finds the renegade bookworms (ha!), led by a guy named Granger, who welcome him with open arms and invite him to join their network (The Book Report Network, if I may) of booklovers across the country who hope to spread their love of books. When random enemy jets appear in the sky and bomb the city itself, Montag, Granger and the Bookworms, set out to find survivors and rebuild civilization. So all’s well that ends well. Come to think of it, this is the probably the most optimistic ending to a book we’ve seen so far in our "Telling It Like It Is" travels. Good for us! 

What’s the lesson we learn from all this, guys? That books are cool? (Sometimes my jokes are so subtle even I don’t get them.) Thinking for yourself? Goooood. Watching a lot of garbage TV? Okay in small doses (or one Saturday at a time).

Think you still need a better handle on this one? This AcademicEarth.org video explains FAHRENHEIT 451 in less than three minutes. Don't believe me? Check it out for yourself. And read the book! It's a...classic.