Early in the spring of 1950, Ray Bradbury, a budding author working at a coin-operated typewriter in the UCLA library, managed — in 49 hours, at 20 cents an hour — to write the first draft of a prophetic novel that is still very much with us, half a century later. Originally, he called it The Fire Man. We know it now by the far more poetic and memorable title he coined before the finished book went to press in 1953: Fahrenheit 451.
His tale’s premise is ironic, given that he was writing it in a library. His hero, Montag, is a fireman of the future — a municipal worker whose job is to burn books. Reading is a rebellious and even dangerous activity in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as Bradbury envisioned them. (And here we are.) Reading leads to asking questions, and questions lead to thinking for oneself: a great crime in his nightmarish yet plausible future America. Books are torched like witches. The story hinges on Montag’s gradual conversion, as he discovers, by inexorable degrees, the life-giving power of what he is burning. He grows curious; he steals a book and smuggles it home, though to do so is to risk prison. His supervisor, Beatty, guesses what he’s done and slyly drops by the house to toy with him, cat-and-mouse, by way of instilling discipline:
“When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours, how did it come about, where, when?” Beatty asks rhetorically. He drily proceeds over the course of several pages to unfold a “history” of our times so foresightful as to be chilling. Writing and reading had their uses, long ago, he admits — but as the world filled up, photography, motion pictures, radio, television, quite naturally became the media through which people could best relate. “Things began to have mass,” says Beatty. “And because they had mass, they became simpler.” Collective activities (more sports, group spirit, group fun) quite naturally became the norm. So did the flat, wall-sized TVs that predominate in Montag’s world, to say nothing of ours.
Such wizardries were far beyond the mass-perspectives of 1950, but Bradbury imagines our big plasma screens (and our addictions to them) with unnerving precision. “School is shortened,” Beatty proclaims, “discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work.” And let’s not forget the specter of “political correctness:” Although he doesn’t name it, Bradbury can see it coming. “Don’t step on the toes of the dog lovers,” says Beatty, “The cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico…. Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs?” (This is a sentence that puts Bradbury 14 years ahead of the U.S. Surgeon General, and it’s followed by a couple that put him five decades ahead of CBS’s 60 Minutes:)”The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator.”