National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451

by Ray Bradbury

You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.


Ray Bradbury selling newspapers on the corner of Olympic and Norton, Los Angeles, c. 1938.

Josephine Reed: Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature, and encourage Americans to discover the transformative joys of reading. As fans of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 know, it just takes a spark.

Hector Elizondo reads Fahrenheit 451...

IT WAS A PLEASURE TO BURN.

"It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strolled in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning."

Reed: Here's your host, poet and former Chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia.

Gioia: Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is a book that has fascinated many writers including novelist John Crowley.

John Crowley: Fahrenheit 451 is an enormously gripping story—the vision of a society without books and reading was then chilling to me, and remains so today when we feel like we live sometimes almost in a society without books and reading. It was an enormously touching idea.

Gioia: A world without books. That's something writer Ray Bradbury has imagined and re-imagined for much of his 85 years. As one of the most influential science fiction writers in history, Bradbury's work, more than 500 short stories and 11 novels to date, has helped shape the last half century of American literature and popular culture. Today we'll explore Bradbury's terrifying vision of a future without books as we discuss his groundbreaking 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451.

Orson Scott Card: I first ran into Ray Bradbury's work as, you know, stories that we were given now and then in school.

Gioia: Novelist, Orson Scott Card.

Card: And I remember the first time that I read it, Fahrenheit 451. Of course you get drawn into the story, Bradbury is a masterful story teller, but it was his choice of protagonist that was interesting. To have it be a fireman, to have it be someone who was involved in the active destruction/suppression of books. That was a very wise choice. Who else would be anywhere near as interesting as somebody who was on the one side and then converts to the other?

Sam Weller: The power of books is so evident and his love of books is so evident throughout this incredibly quick book.
Gioia: Sam Weller is the author of the biography, The Bradbury Chronicles.

Weller: If you read the movement of the story, and I think that's one of the great things about this book, is once you get hooked into it and you glom onto these characters, it's a mad rush through this incredibly dark and dystopian world. It's a roller coaster and it's fast and it's furious and the narrative movement of the story is both cinematic and it's gripping and it's a thrill ride.

Gioia: Bradbury's own literary thrill ride started when he was a young boy. He pulled books off his aunt's and uncle's shelves and read them all-The Fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, The Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, the Tarzan novels and John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. When Bradbury had exhausted his relative's collections, he unleashed his insatiable hunger on a much larger supply of books.

Bradbury: The library was the most exciting place in the world and every Monday evening, starting when I was about seven years old, my brother and I would run to the library—not walk, run to the library, and especially in autumn we were accompanied by leaves so, wind blows you along the street and you and the leaves go to the library.

Weller: Ray Bradbury's love of books goes back to, like for so many of us, when he was a little boy growing up in far northern Illinois, in a town called Waukegan.

Gioia: Biographer, Sam Weller.

Weller: He started going to the library, the old Carnegie Library which was built in 1902 right on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan and Ray Bradbury would go there every Monday night with his brother Skip, and they would go and get books on Egypt and mummies and pirates and dinosaurs, all the fodder that little boys tend to love.

Bradbury: And you get into the library and there's that wonderful ambiance and all the stacks of all your loved ones surround you because Edgar Allen Poe is up there watching you, and Jules Vern is up there accompanying you. So a library is one of the great places to read.

Gioia: Ray Bradbury claims that everything that he has needed to know he has learned from books in libraries. Sometimes he even got ideas from the Sunday comics. At age 12, he devoured Buck Rogers and then wrote his own version of futuristic comic strip. At age 14, when the Bradbury family moved cross country to California, Ray slipped into local libraries along Route 66, in search of the latest Oz book by L. Frank Baum.

Weller: He claims that was his real experience with censorship. He would go into a library and find that the librarian didn't have the Wizard of Oz books, a Tarzan book, or the John Carter Warlord of Mars books. They weren't interested in those books for their collection, and Ray said, not that it was necessarily prejudicial, or perhaps it was, but they, for whatever reason did not have those titles often in the libraries. And so he kept that, as he often does, in the back of his mind, filed it away. And so the first kernel of Fahrenheit 451 was really born back in 1932 driving an old Buick with his family down Route 66 through depression era America, and that's where a lot of the genesis of this book began.

Gioia: Enrolled at Los Angeles High School, Ray Bradbury started his own newspaper, called Futuria Fantasia. Always, Bradbury had a passion for invented worlds, for fantasy and imagination. When he finished high school, money was tight. So he set about educating himself, going to the library every night. He immersed himself in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Jonathan Swift. Bradbury drew on these writers to help mold his own emerging voice.

Bradbury: If you could encourage people to fill themselves up with poetry, to fill themselves up with novels, to fill themselves up with films, to live in art galleries and discover the metaphors there—it's the most important thing you can do. But find your love. Go to the library, maybe it's waiting for you there.

Gioia: Bradbury likes to say that at age 27, he graduated from the library. Soon he began publishing short stories to critical and popular acclaim. In 1950, he published The Martian Chronicles, a lyrical novel about the colonization of Mars. He then began exploring ideas that would eventually lead to Fahrenheit 451. The book, naturally, was shaped by Bradbury's relationship with libraries.

Bradbury: Our house was getting full of children, it was very loud, it was very wonderful. But I had to have an office, but I had no money and I couldn't rent an office. But I was wandering around UCLA, and I heard typing in the basement under the library and I went down to see what was there and discovered there was a typing room where you can rent a typewriter for $0.10 a half hour. And I thought, "Hell, this is a great place to write, and this is my office." So I went and got a bag of dimes and I went down and the novel began that day. And nine days later it was finished.

Weller: It's a magical story and the fact that he could write, really the entire book, in nine days I think illustrates Ray Bradbury's creative process at work and when inspiration catches him, ignites him as he will.

Gioia: Again, Sam Weller.

Weller: I think what else is really neat is that he would take breaks and walk upstairs into the library and pull books off shelves, and smell the dust, read the pages, absorb the concepts, and then rush back downstairs and write some more.

Bradbury: I kept on running up and downstairs in a fever, and I grab books off the shelves and open 'em to find a quote—any kind of quote—from 2000 years ago, 500 years ago, and run back down and put it in the novel.

Hector Elizondo reads Fahrenheit 451...

"Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dare."

"Consider the lilies of the field. How they grow they toil not."

"Hercules was stopped by the giant wrestler, Antheus."

"It takes two to speak the truth, one to speak and another to hear."

Gioia: Bradbury remembers that while the book emerged from him in nearly complete form, he was initially stumped for a title.

Bradbury: I got curious about the temperature at which the book paper catches fire and burns. So I called UCLA, the Chemistry Department, and I said "Could you tell me at what temperature book paper catches fire and burns?" They didn't know and then I called the Physics Department at SC and asked them the same question and they didn't know. So I said, "Dummy, call the fire department." I should have done that first.

So I called downtown, and asked for the Fire Chief and he came on the phone and he said "Can I help you?" I said, "Yes, I know this sounds silly," I said, "But I'd like to find out at what temperature paper catches fire and burns?" He said, "Wait there."

Weller: And Ray could hear the wheels and the Fire Chief's desk chair screeching as the man went to grab a book off a shelf and he came back and flipped through pages and fingers down to a number and says:

Bradbury: 451 Fahrenheit. I said, "Oh God," I reversed it. "Fahrenheit 451." So that's how it happened. I hope he wasn't lying to me. It would be awful if we found out that he made a mistake and said some other temperature.

Gioia: While Bradbury used science and literature in the novel, he also drew on his childhood memories. In the 1930's, it seemed the world was unraveling.

Bradbury: Well Hitler, of course, when I was 15, burned the books in the streets of Berlin. And then along the way, I learned about the Libraries of Alexandria burning 5000 years ago. They burned two or three times. Twice, I believe, by accident and once on purpose. And that grieved my soul because, since I'm self educated that means my educator... the library's endangered, and my heroes were being killed, so therefore, the burnings in the past were a danger to my future.

Gioia: Bradbury was developing the characters and themes for Fahrenheit 451 for a few years before they came together in the novel. In one story, the firemen, the title character goes to a library to burn books, only to find that the people there have memorized the books in order to protect them.

Bradbury: And I wrote a short story called "The Exiles," about all the characters from Oz, and from Edgar Allan Poe and from Dickens' Christmas Carol, isolated on Mars and they've gone there because they are exiles from Earth. The books were being burned down on earth, all the imaginative books, all the dangerous books. Alice in Wonderland is there and Jules Verne is there and you realize at the end of the story they're beginning to die because the books are being burned on Earth and that as each book is burned, the character disappears on Mars.

Gioia: In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury combines all these plots, themes and characters, into the story of his hero, Guy Montag. At the beginning of the novel, Montag is a fireman who starts fires instead of putting them out. In the world of Fahrenheit 451, books are illegal and neighbors betray neighbors to the police for hiding forbidden volumes.

Hector Elizondo reads, Fahrenheit: 451...

"11 Elm. Suspect books in the attic of a Mrs. Hudson.

"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. Montag felt an immense irritation. She shouldn't be here, on top of everything!

"Books bombarded his shoulders, his arms, his upturned face. A book lit, almost obediently, like a white pigeon, in his hands, wings fluttering. In the dim, wavering light, a page hung open and it was like a snowy feather, the words delicately painted thereon. In all the rush and fervor, Montag had only an instant to read a line, but it blazed in his mind for the next minute as if stamped there with fiery steel. 'Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine.' He dropped the book. Immediately, another fell into his arms. ...

"Montag had done nothing. His hand had done it all, his hand, with a brain of its own, with a conscience and a curiosity in each trembling finger, had turned thief. Now it plunged the book back under his arm, pressed it tight to sweating armpit, rushed out empty, with a magician's flourish! Look here! Innocent! Look!

"He gazed, shaken, at that white hand. He held it way out, as if he were farsighted. He held it close, as if he were blind."

Bradbury: When Mrs. Hudson is willing to burn with her books, that's the turning point. When it's all over she is willing to die with her loved ones, with her dogs, with her cats, with her books. When she gives up her life, she'd rather die than be without them. And later on, he thinks how could that woman die? What did she care about so much? She cared about the books. There must be something in them that I can't see. But right now, I wouldn't die for anyone. I wouldn't die for anything. So maybe I can learn from her, how to die, for something.

Gioia: You're listening to The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today we're discussing Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

Weller: The book was released and sent out to critics across the country and universally received outstanding reviews.

Gioia: Again, biographer, Sam Weller.

Weller: Orville Prescott at New York Times raved about it. I mean, some pretty heavyweight hard to please critics embraced this book and recognized its power and its social commentary, I mean this is an incredible work of social commentary. And they were immediately recognizing the courage of a writer who was not only looking just a few years back to the past, at the fascism of Nazi Germany, but also looking at the present time and the witch hunts that were occurring at the time with Joseph McCarthy.

Ursula Kay LeGuin: It was very impressive when it came out, as it is now. I mean, I think we all felt then, that this guy was looking ahead which he certainly was.

Gioia: Award winning, science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula Kay Le Guin.

LeGuin: A book that hasn't been out of print for 50 years has really got something going. It means it's addressing some sort of concerns or needs of the readers that they're finding in it, you know, one generation after another, something that they're looking for. And he is saying something about the modern world as a whole not just at a certain time.

Gioia: In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury describes a society plugged into electronic media day and night. Giant televisor screens cover the walls mesmerizing viewers with a prophetic version of reality TV. Small headphones are tucked into people's ears; no one reads, people barely speak to each other. They are emotionally and intellectually numb. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Guy Montag begins to question this world. "We have everything we need to be happy," he says. "But we aren't happy."

Weller: I think what's fascinating about Fahrenheit is that Ray Bradbury is a man who didn't own a television until the mid 1950s, but yet he was writing about and forewarning us about the impending problems television could bring the family. He was really a visionary in his early thirties. For a young man who everybody dismissed as someone who was a hack when it came to writing about technology, his imagination was so singular and it's reflected so beautifully in this book. I think you really can see that this man was really seeing into a lot of things about the power of books, and the threat of silencing freedom of speech, all of these different things he was addressing in this book.

Gioia: In the world of Fahrenheit 451, possessing a single book is enough to get a person arrested. While some of us read Bradbury's novel as a world of frightening fantasy, others actually live with this fear and danger today.

From his childhood in Cuba, jazz clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera remembers people sneaking books to each other as illegal contraband.

Paquito D'Rivera: I have a friend, and she was a person who gave me a copy of Animal Farm and she asked me, "Now, you have to promise me that you are going to read this at home because it is very dangerous to read this, even if you have a different cover and all that."

Literature is as dangerous as jazz music for dictators, for repressive people, because with literature you're free. You are alone in a world that is not the one that surrounds you. Fahrenheit 451 is the best description of how the repression acts in any dictatorship to the right or to the left. How they act to suppress your right even to be sad. You don't have the right not even to feel bad. You have to feel good. So it's very clear in this book. I called Ray Bradbury once to tell him only that, "Monsieur, I am a Cuban reader and I want to thank you for writing something that reflects how we have been repressed and how communism and all the totalitarian systems work. And, Fahrenheit 451, it is such a fantastic novel."

Gioia: Halfway around the world in Iran, Azar Nafisi suffered the same kind of repression. Her memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran tells the story of an underground book group she organized.

Azar Nafisi: When I lived in the Islamic Republic, the whole world, not just this country, U.S., but the whole world was taken away from us and there was almost an iron curtain. And the only way we could let the world know that we are not what these people say we are—the Islamic republic says we are, was through our books.

In a country like U.S., we say, "Oh! We're free! This is not happening to us." And I think that Saul Bellow said it so wonderfully when he reminded us that it is not only the ordeal of holocaust that you need to remember, he said what about surviving the ordeal of freedom. And he mentions that the ordeal of freedom is keeping your consciousness awake. And he worried about a country, he said, which would lose its love of its soul and its poetry. Because he said that country faces death.

So, in a country like this, in America today, we're much more in danger of losing that consciousness. In this country we're becoming so smart. We read either self help books or we don't read. We live with our basic assumptions and we're losing the power to dream.

Gioia: It's not only those who live in repressive regimes who have been moved by Fahrenheit 451.

Nat Hentoff is an American writer who says the book was a touchstone for him.

Nat Hentoff: Well, that book gave me great inspiration if you like, I had had, in a decade before I was the editor of my college paper at Northeastern University in Boston. We fancied ourselves muckrakers and we exposed a lot of things around the city, including the anti-Semitism that was rife then at the time. And the president of Northeastern University thought the kind of stuff we were writing might influence negatively some of the contributions of some of the corporations, et cetera. So he said, "Stop it!" And we didn't stop it. We had to leave, and reading Ray Bradbury made me aware again that this spirit doesn't die, it can't die. And it was one of the impetuses, I guess you could say, of what was my first nonfiction book which was The First Freedom. The subtitle of which was "The Tumultuous History of the First Amendment in the United States."

Card: I think that Bradbury will last and last.

Gioia: Novelist, Orson Scott Card.

Orson: I consider him a great American writer. He was inside science fiction; at the same time, he always wrote in such a way that his work was accessible outside. There are science fiction writers, and, I dare say, a majority of science fiction writers who depend on having an audience that already understands the tropes of science fiction, that already knows its way into the work.

Bradbury never relied on having an audience like that. He always wrote every story, as far as I remember, is meant to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible. And he allows himself to be musical in his speech. And allows himself a degree of sentiment in the language that few writers do and few writers could bring it off as effectively as he does because he manages never to push it too far, at least not for me.

So, he became one of my favorite writers and only when you read Ray Bradbury aloud do you realize what music there is in his work. He's just so beautiful for the human voice.

Gioia: Late in Fahrenheit 451, Montag is forced to burn his own house because hidden books have been discovered inside it. He flees and eventually comes upon a group of exiles who live on the fringes of society, roaming the forest. Each person memorizes a book, in order to preserve it. Books by Plato, Machiavelli, Thomas Payne, Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens—everything from Einstein to Ecclesiastes. As the members of this new community explain to Montag, “You're not important. You're not anything," the book Montag preserves in himself, that is what's important.

Hector Elizondo reads Fahrenheit 451...

"Someday the load we're carrying with us may help someone. But even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn't use what we got out of them. We went right on insulting the dead. We went right on spitting in the graves of all the poor ones who died before us. ...

"But now there was a long morning's walk until noon, and if the men were silent it was because there was everything to think about and much to remember. Perhaps later in the morning, when the sun was up and had warmed them, they would begin to talk, or just say things they remembered, to be sure they were there, to be absolutely certain that things were safe in them. Montag felt the slow stir of words, the slow simmer. And when it came his turn, what could he say, what could he offer on a day like this, to make the trip a little easier? To everything there is a season. Yes. A time to break down, and a time to build up. Yes. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. Yes, all that. But what else. What else? Something, something... And on either side of the river was there a tree of life, which bear twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

"Yes, thought Montag, that's the one I'll say for noon. For noon.

"When we reach the city."

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts. It was produced by Dan Stone. Post-production by Molly Murphy. Katie Davis was our writer. Readings of Fahrenheit 451 were by Hector Elizondo. The music was composed by Philip Brunelle. Special thanks to Sarah Spitz, David Kipen and, of course, Ray Bradbury. I'm Dana Gioia.

Bradbury: There was a statement, "LOVE." Love is the answer to everything—loving poetry, loving plays, loving short stories, loving the library. So again, to the young people, fall in love, go to the library, maybe it's waiting for you there.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to www.NEABigRead.org. That's www.NEABigRead.org.

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