As Brooklyn began to think about candy and costumes, I explored a different kind of spooky. On a blustery Wednesday, I finished the dystopian Fahrenheit 451 in the Lark Cafe on Church Avenue. Ray Bradbury’s classic shows an alternate United States where firemen burn books, intellectualism is illegal, and the population is constantly distracted. Although I missed Fahrenheit 451 for Banned Books Week in September, the book remains relevant.
While I walked down Westminster Road and the novel’s themes ran through my head, I thought about how the protagonist, Montag, could live anywhere in the US. Specific cities like Chicago and Seattle are mentioned, but Montag’s own city is unknown. Like so many of us, he lives in a suburban house and commutes by train to his job, which in his case is as one of the book burning firemen. Fahrenheit 451 points at the reader and asks, ‘Could Montag live in your neighborhood? Are books being burned there?’
Walking still, I passed by a tiny free library (pictured above) suggesting, ‘Take a book, leave a book.’ Its liberal giving of books seemed to reject the possibility of a book burning on Westminster Road. But I don’t think the question is so simply answered in a community or in myself. In the novel, readers and intellectuals are weeded out pervasively and sent into hiding. Strikingly, it is the general population that decides to remove intellectualism from society. In a powerful monologue spoken to Montag, the Fire Chief Beatty explains how things came to be how they are.
Beatty describes media reaching more and more people with television and photography in the 20th century. Things began to need to be snappier and simpler, classics being shortened to just a few sentences. Eventually, the only printed materials were comic books and sex magazines. In this eerily familiar world of instant gratification, Beatty talks about how the bright and questioning students in schools were the ones bullied most. ‘Intellectualism’ became a swear word because of the independent development of their culture.
I think about how national conversations in my own world are reduced to name calling or finger pointing and I can see how questioning citizens could be labeled as enemies to the public. A critical change in culture noted by multiple characters in Fahrenheit 451 is the removal of time and space to think. Currently, we still have porches and cafes like the one I read this book, places dedicated to sitting and thinking. And although it would place you on a government blacklist in Montag’s world, I and others can still enjoy a nice thoughtful walk.