When it comes to audiobooks the narrator is key. If you get a bad one it doesn’t matter how much you like a book. As I’ve said countless times recently, I’ve been using my audiobook binge as a reason to go back and reread books I’ve not read for a while. I’ve had the Audible edition of Fahrenheit 451 for a while now. I was really excited because it’s narrated by Tim Robbins. I can’t say he’s my favourite actor but you can’t not like Tim Robbins, right? So, I was excited to start listening and, after a weekend’s break, I started on my Monday commute. It should have been a book that I finished that day but I just couldn’t get into it. Robbin’s narration just didn’t engage me. He was too slow and laid back. There was no real fear or danger to his interpretation. His version of Montag just seemed like a bumpkin and that’s not how I imagine him. It took me ages to finish because I was so bored. And this is a book I genuinely love. It should have been easy but it wasn’t. In the hands of a different narrator, this story would have come to life. But, thanks to Robbins, I didn’t really care at all.
Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel written in the 1950s. It’s one of Ray Bradbury’s most popular and well-known novels. It was written, in part, as a response to censorship in the era of McCarthyism. Though the issues of censorship and book burning are more complicated than that, this has been the primary interpretation over the years. After all, the story takes place in a society where the government is responsible for the burning of books. Instead of thinking for themselves, citizens now stay inside and watch endless streams of television. This is a society where free-thinkers and intellectuals have been removed.
The novel is presented from the perspective of Gus Montag, a fireman. The role of firemen has changed dramatically and, instead of putting out fires, they now cause them. They are the enforcers of the new order and will be sent out to destroy any banned material. Neighbours are encouraged to spy on their friends and call in their suspicions. Then Gus and his colleagues will search the houses and burn any that are hiding books inside. Although, Gus has been starting to have doubts about his role. Something that is only strengthened when he meets his young neighbour, Clarisse. Clarisse is seen as quite an oddity as she thinks about the world around her. As she talks with Gus, he starts to open his eyes to society and its faults. When Clarisse disappears, Montag finds himself moving further away from everything he’s ever known.
The theme of censorship is an important one here but the narrative is a more chilling tale about the changing shifts in pop culture. Bradbury was wary about the rise of mass media and fears about an illiterate society. The majority of people in the novel lead unfulfilled lives and are painfully unhappy. Attempted suicide is a common occurrence, people find themselves in multiple marriages, and they rarely go outside. They use television to numb their feelings and switch off from their lives. They have no control or understanding of their emotions. We learn that books were eventually removed from society because they provided too many worrying or contradictory ideas. People’s attention spans were shorter so books had to be abridged. Those who didn’t read would no longer trust people who did. Eventually, books were just simply from society.
The main culprit behind the banning of books was society as a whole and the book suggests that government book burning is merely a side effect. However, there is also the argument that a subdued and distracted society is good for the government. Something that definitely influenced their decision to change the job of the firemen. The shadow of war is hanging over the entire novel yet nobody is concerned about it. A lack of individual thought is helpful for those in charge as they don’t have to answer to anyone. Though the government may not have started the book ban, it is clear that they are revelling in it. This is a cautionary tale about conformity. Once Montag starts to think for himself, he sees the threats all around him.
Fahrenheit 451 is a great book and one that really does present a frightening view of a society without creative thought. Though, unlike something like The Handmaid’s Tale, I do have to question how prescient it feels these days. Yes, mass media is still on the rise but, no matter what we’ve been told over the years, books are still popular. With every generation there comes new and forward-thinking individuals. Young people are perhaps more clued-up now than they ever were. This novel isn’t a terrifying look into our future; it’s Boomer propaganda. In the 90s, Bradbury claimed that political correctness was the new enemy. Quite frankly, that’s bullshit. Not saying offensive things about minorities isn’t censorship. It’s respect. Bradbury may have predicted many things when he wrote this but it is by no means a glimpse into our future. So, yeah, I like Fahrenheit 451 but I also take it with a massive pinch of salt.