Ossus Library Index
Science Fiction Index


A novel by Ray Bradbury
(2001, Ballantine Books)
[original copyright 1951, 1953, 1967]

A Fireman, charged with burning all books, succumbs to temptation and smuggles one home, thus changing his beliefs.


+ -- First reading (hardcover)
February 9th to 13th, 2006


I forget, often, how different science fiction books are that were written in the 1950s. There is much less action, and much more thought.

In this case, the author puts so much passion into the main character that I was exhausted every time I put the book down. Essentially it was the character, Montag, thinking about the books that he was charged to burn. He has philosophical conversations with a young neighbor, until she is killed, about how beautiful the world is, to have new experiences, and so on. The conversations seem strange because they are talking about the world in which we already live. We do not have the kind of restrictions that these people have, the mindlessness of society. Society has, fortunately, taken a different path from the one depicted in this book.

We still have the huge TV screens, and all sorts of reality shows (the author was frighteningly prescient about those). Yet people still think a lot. Even those who would rather sit and watch TV all the time have strong opinions. The people in this book have voluntarily given themselves over to oblivion, both in spirit and in mind, and by the end, in body as well.

The way the banning of books is laid out is also frighteningly plausible. It is one thing to say that people stopped reading, but it is the reasons why they stopped that are interesting. In order to please innumerable groups of minorities, certain books were banned because they could be hurtful. Of course, in some way or another, all people are minorities, so to stop offending everybody, all books and all fictional TV shows would have to be banned. From being forbidden to have books in public to banning them in private, too, is not such a huge step, either. I can actually see it happening eventually with smoking in this country (although I would be very happy about that, especially in houses that I would visit, rent or own).

Clarisse's family is marked by the authorities as being strange and to be watched. They stay up all hours of the night talking about things! Her uncle was actually arrested for taking a late-night stroll once. She herself was reportedly killed after being hit by a car while strolling along the roadways.

Unfortunately for the reader, the past, which was less restrictive and more thought-provoking, is not far enough in the past. I cannot see how all of this could happen in a single generation, so that people could actually remember the old days, when Firemen put out fires instead of setting them.

Montag, a Fireman, gets spooked after a woman burns herself along with her books. He takes a book home with him, and can't face burning any more, especially after all those conversations with Clarisse. There is not really much more to the story, as Montag agonizes about what he should do with his life. His boss, who knew that he took the book, gives him a chance to give it up, but he flaunts it to everybody he meets. He had actually been storing books for years, without reading them! From his thoughts early in the novel, I knew that he had hidden a book behind the ventilation grate in his house. What surprised me was how many he had actually taken! Even the old man who gives him a two-way ear-radio thinks he is insane for doing reciting poetry to his wife's houseguests. Eventually, when his own house is burned, he kills his boss and goes on the run, across the river and out into the country.

I have some trouble believing that he could so easily reach the countryside and meet up with the lost souls who remember the old days, mostly university professors. But they are made out to be an interesting bunch of people, as each has memorized a book, or more than one. They hold onto it for the day when people change their minds and want to welcome books back into their society.

What I like about the book is that they don't change society by the end. They go on their way, hoping to help the people in the cities who were not killed when the bombs from the Enemy fell down. They describe what is wrong with society, and realize that it cannot be changed in a single lifetime. People have to wake up from the dream of wanting nothing but fun and entertainment in their lives (which makes me wonder what other kinds of occupations exist in this kind of world where people are encouraged NOT to think). When they are ready to change, the people will recite the books to be printed again.

Until then, they wait.

For a book about burning books, this was more a warning about falling asleep while rights are taken away in the name of tolerance, security, and simplicity. The books are just a symbol, and a pretty good one, too.


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