Reading (and) Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (The 50th Anniversary Edition). New York: Picador (1998), 190 pp.
So how do you get kids to read? I read a stray article written by a well-known novelist who shrugged off the problem. This concern has been blown out of proportion, she said. Thanks to steep literacy levels, more people are reading now than at any other time in history. Numerically, this is true. But I think the rebuttal misses the point: as I see it, people are worried because those who got an education used to be deeply committed to reading; many of those who get an education today are reading-averse. I’ve had quite a few former students confess that they read one or no books before college; and I’ve talked to several educated adults who admit that they haven’t read a full book in, say, a decade (or more).
So back to square one: how do you get kids to read? If you ask Ray Bradbury, as you can see in the interview that accompanies the 50th Anniversary Edition of Fahrenheit 451, this is such a simple question: “Hand them a book, that’s all. Science fiction, fantasy—my books have changed a lot of lives. My books are full of images and metaphors, but they’re connected to intellectual concepts. Give one of my books to a twelve-year-old boy who doesn’t like to read, and that boy will fall in love and start to read” (p. 190). Oh, okay. Why didn’t you say so earlier?
It is a presumptuous answer, isn’t it? And quite unjustified, if you ask me. Fahrenheit 451 has become a staple book in high school, and I have seen people speak of it with admiration. But I read it recently, and disappointment is the first word that comes to mind. There are good things in the book, mind you. The idea of a world turned against the intellect, a world in which ignorance rules through the blaze of firemen who burn books, is quite interesting.
But the main problem is related to the novel’s technique. I think the texture of the book is bland, the prose is stilted, the dialogues and situations are implausible and even boring. One would not think so at the beginning, because it starts so well, with a clever opening sentence: “It was a pleasure to burn” (p. 3). “Burn” is beautifully poised here because it is a verb that changes its relation to objects when it is an intransitive verb or a transitive verb. The opening sentence can be read to mean that it was a pleasure to burn (in the sense of being lit on fire), or that it was a pleasure to burn (in the sense of lighting other things on fire). The context quickly resolves this ambiguity in favor of the second meaning, but it is indicative of the reversal firemen themselves have experienced in the Fahrenheit 451 universe, having gone from fire-extinguishers to fire-producers. This was well done.
But then you get the bland prose I mentioned, as well as some far-fetched characterizations. Tag along the use of ellipses, which is so cheap at times, leaving the suspense there so suspensefully it is ridiculous. Furthermore, there are quirks with the intended audience (why would the narrator say on page 34 that the firemen’s hose sprayed “not water but kerosene,” if the Fahrenheit 451 universe is used to kerosene and has no recollection of firemen using water?).
And there’s a huge confusion with oral cultures. Oral transmission is not exact; the Bible is replete with examples of this: someone says something, and the hearer passes it on shortly afterward, only to do so with alterations (take the Garden of Eden story, for example, and see how the prohibition keeps changing as it is retold). Oral transmission is particularly not exact when coming from people as thoroughly unaccustomed to memorizing texts as Guy Montag, the main character. And yet, when Montag unearths a passage from Revelations 22:2 at the end of the book, it is drawn unperturbed from the King James Version: verbatim. That is mighty odd. This era of memorizing books, this era of orality, is compared to the “Dark Age” (on p. 153); however, it is tailored according to the expectations of a highly textualized modernity, not those of the oral culture it has been forced to become.
I wonder why the book has enjoyed such an enthusiastic reception. In any case, no, I don’t think handing Fahrenheit 451 to a twelve-year-old will solve the problem of kids who are not eager to read.