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Friday, March 9, 2012

Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Fahrenheit 451 follows Guy Montag, a "fireman", through a journey of self-discovery, revolution against society, and acceptance as a leader of rebels. In Montag's world, the "firemen" are responsible for answering alarms raised about people who are secretly hiding books. Books are anathema to society, and as the book starts, Montag feels the rightness of this and enjoys his job. His mind starts to change when he meets a new young neighbor, Clarisse, who takes pleasure in all the things society has ceased to celebrate, and after his wife, Mildred, attempts suicide because of the pervasive emptiness around and inside her. Montag starts building a secret stash of books, and after Clarisse disappears and Montag is forced to burn a woman in her library because she refuses to leave her books, Montag forces Mildred to start reading the books with him. He reconnects with an old man, Faber, who had once spoken to him in a park about books. They hatch a plan to plant books in firemen's homes and then raise the alarm to circumvent the system, but before they are able to put their plan in action, Montag is found out, and his wife raises the alarm to burn their house. The Captain, Beatty, forces Montag to personally burn his house and books, but as Montag's communication with Faber is revealed and the Captain promises to go after Faber as well, Montag sets the Captain on fire and escapes with a handful of the remaining books. He escapes "The Mechanical Hound" with Faber's help and makes it to the river. He finds his way to an old railroad track that Faber suggested, and stumbles upon a few comrades who accept him into their company. They each are responsible for holding a book or series of books in their head, and Montag is able to offer them "The Book of Ecclesiastes" from the Old Testament. They hope to remember enough to be of use at some point, and that perhaps if enough is remembered, the world can avoid its previous mistakes. The same night that Montag joins them, the cities around them are bombed in the war that has just begun. Nothing remains - the cities are leveled - and Montag leads them forward into the woods, thinking of what words from Ecclesiastes can be of use to them as they learn to move on.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Wow. I feel as completely emotionally fulfilled and intrigued and curious from this novel as I did empty and frustrated and hollow from A Clockwork Orange. I had never read any Bradbury, and after reading this one, I truly feel that I've just had the rare opportunity of enjoying a brilliantly written classic novel.

From the moment I read the first line - "It was a pleasure to burn" - I was hooked, and the rest of this brief book had the same arresting, intense power. I can't possibly share all the lines I loved in this book - the lyricism was reminiscent of a briefer version of Steinbeck's descriptions in East of Eden - but I'll share a few of the highlights. Before I start, though, if you haven't read this, stop reading this post immediately and pick up a copy of the book. Its 158 pages are worth every single word.

Here are my favorite scenes:

--Montag describing the first fire at the beginning of the book:
"Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame."
"Later, going to sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in the dark."
--Bradbury's images are unparalleled - I was so pulled into the story that I felt like I could almost reach out and touch Montag and smell the kerosene on him.

--Montag meets Clarisse:
"The autumn leaves blew over the moonlit pavement in such a way as to make the girl who was moving there seem fixed to a sliding walk, letting the motion of the wind and the leaves carry her forward. Her head was half bent to watch her shoes stir the circling leaves. Her face was slender and milk-white, and in it was a kind of gentle hunger that touched over everything with tireless curiosity. It was a look, almost, of pale surprise; the dark eyes were so fixed to the world that no move escaped them. Her dress was white and it whispered."
--This reminds me of when Dumbledore first appears on Privet Drive; the magic, the mystery, and the intense spark his presence evokes.

--Montag's reflection on meeting Clarisse:
"Impossible; for how many people did you know that refracted your own light to you?
--I can name only a few. Can you?

--Mildred's response to Montag when he asks about her suicide attempt:
"You took all the pills in your bottle last night."
"Oh, I wouldn't do that. Never in a billion years."
--The scene where Montag discovers Mildred is so brilliantly developed that I didn't catch what was happening just until the moment he picked up the phone to call for help. Her inability to even access that moment of despair is so telling of the societal acceptance of the status quo and departure from feelings of any kind.

--Clarisse rubs the dandelion under Montag's chin to see if he's in love:
This moment was probably my favorite in the book. She tells Montag he's not in love, and he's angry, but you know she's right. I could just see the smeary yellow on his chin and the look of indignation in his eye.

--Rules for Firemen:
(1) Answer the alarm quickly.
(2) Start the fire swiftly.
(3) Burn everything.
(4) Report back to firehouse immediately.
(5) Stand alert for other Alarms.
--These reminded me of the list of rules for life that Gatsby creates for himself.

--Montag's response when they burn the woman with her library:
"She made the empty rooms roar with accusation and shake down a fine dust of guilt that was sucked in their nostrils as they plunged about. It was neither cricket nor correct."
Captain Beatty flicks his fingers to spark the kerosene, but it's too late - "The woman on the porch reached out with contempt to them all, and struck the kitchen match against the railing."
--Another favorite moment; again, I felt the passionate energy behind this confrontation, and the lyricism brought me to within inches of the action itself.

--Montag's change of heart:
"There must be something in books, things we can't imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there."
--There is something there, Montag. I'm writing this blog because there is something there.

--Mildred tries to fix Montag's pillow and discovers the book with the tips of her fingers:
--This is a fantastic scene. Montag stays home sick because he can't handle the fact that they burned the woman in her library, and Captain Beatty comes to check in on him. He's lecturing him about how all firemen go through this phase, this moment of uncertainty, but they pass through it, and the whole time it's happening, Montag is sitting on his bed and Mildred is trying to fix Montag's pillow, but Montag is hiding a book there, and you hear them fighting and then Mildred's fingers feel the outline of the book and just f r e e z e.

--Montag drowns out Mildred's "family":
"He opened the book to read over Mildred's laughter."
--I love the idea of "reading over" something. Reading is silent, so there's a brilliant irony to the phrase, but I can't count the number of times I've tried to read over something annoying or loud.

--Faber's opinion on why books matter:
"Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us."
"The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies."
-Spot on. Spot on, Bradbury.

Montag: "My wife says books aren't 'real'.
Faber: "Thank God for that. You can shut them, say, 'Hold on a moment.' You play God to it."
--This is so apt. When I was reading The Hunger Games a few weeks ago, I was constantly taking a moment to pull back, to "Play God", to the books, sometimes to cry, sometimes to think, sometimes just to reel in my emotions and feel the immensity of the instant. This is absolutely hands down my favorite thing about books versus movies.

--Faber reads to Montag:
"Would you like me to read? I'll read so you can remember. I go to bed only five hours a night. Nothing to do. So if you like, I'll read you to sleep nights. They say you retain knowledge even when you're sleeping, if someone whispers it in your ear."
Montag: "Yes."
--Faber, will you read to me?

--Mrs. Phelps, on children:
"You heave them into the 'parlor' and turn the switch. It's like washing clothes; stuff laundry in and slam the lid."
-Amazing. Who knew it was so simple? Done and done!

--Montag as he begins his escape:
"The air over and above the vast concrete river trembled with the warmth of Montag's body alone; it was incredible how he felt his temperature could cause the whole immediate world to vibrate."
-Incredible writing.

--Montag meets the rebels:
"Montag. Walk carefully. Guard your health. If anything should happen to Harris, you are the Book of Ecclesiastes. See how important you've become in the last minute!"
-How many books am I responsible for? I should keep an eye on my health, too, eh?

--The rebels' philosophy:
"They weren't at all certain that the things they carried in their heads might make every future dawn glow with a purer light, they were sure of nothing save that the books were on file behind their quiet eyes."
-I like that Montag's discovery of the rebels isn't a panacea, but a step in the right direction.

--Granger's advice from his grandfather:
"Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds."
-This seems a bit drastic (and unrealistic) but I like the idea of it.

--Granger, on the importance of their work:
"We're going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we're doing, you can say, We're remembering. That's where we'll win out in the long run. And some day we'll remember so much that we'll build the biggest goddam steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in and cover it up."
-I like the idea that if enough people remember the mistakes of our past, we can eradicate one so enormous as war. Improbable? Yes. Impractical? Absolutely. Worth fighting for? I've never been surer.

I'll leave you with these parting words from Montag, from when he's pondering the rebels' return to the world:
"A lot of it will be wrong, but just enough of it will be right."
"I'll hold onto the world tight some day. I've got one finger on it now; that's a beginning."

Onwards to more science fiction and a comical romp through the cosmic universe.

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