Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953) 190 p.

The title is very familiar, one of those ones everybody vaguely recalls from their school days, even if the content probably isn’t as well-known. Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian science fiction novel in which the “firemen” of an unnamed American city spend their time starting fires to burn books rather than putting fires out. The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman who has been secretly hiding books out of curiosity and is developing a niggling feeling that burning them is wrong. (Incidentally, the first draft was titled “The Fireman,” which would have been a much better title, since Bradbury was misinformed – 451 degrees fahrenheit is not exactly the temperature at which paper ignites.)

I’d only read a few of Bradbury’s short stories before, in high school, but I barely remembered them. I was surprised to find that his writing style was much more elaborate and literary than I expected:

The concussion knocked the air across and down the river, turned the men over like dominoes in a line, blew the water in lifting sprays, and blew the dust and made the trees above them mourn with a great wind passing away south… in that instant he saw the city, instead of the bombs, in the air. They had displaced each other. For another of those impossible instants the city stood, rebuilt and unrecognisable, taller than it had ever hoped or strived to be, taller than man had built it, erected at last in gouts of shattered concrete and sparkles of torn metal into a mural hung like a reversed avalanche, a million colours, a million oddities, a door where a window should be, a top for a bottom, a side for a back, and then the city rolled over and fell down dead.

As a mid-20th century science fiction writer I’d already pigeon-holed Bradbury in alongside authors like Heinlein or Asimov; he’s actually much more like Philip K. Dick, and that may go some way towards explaining why I didn’t enjoy Fahrenheit 451 all that much.

Which is not to say that I don’t admire it, and don’t think it was an important novel at an important time in history (it was written at the height of McCarthyism). I just found his characters a little wooden – certainly too fond of long, wordy monologues – and his world a bit stiff. It certainly feels much more like a story servicing a concept than a concept which gave birth to a rich and vibrant story. But it’s an important novel of the 20th century, and not particularly long, and is worth reading.