In 1953, a little-known 33-year-old writer named Ray Bradbury wrote his first novel.
Sixty-two years later, “Fahrenheit 451” is a bona fide international classic.
The masterwork about a dystopian society where books are contraband is a staple of school curricula. It has been translated into more than 30 languages around the world and is, today, one of the most selected titles in community reading programs across the nation (along with Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”).
The Kansas City area this week joins the list of community celebrants. The Mid-Continent Public Library system has kicked off a series of events surrounding the book in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Arts “Big Read” initiative. Having worked closely with Ray Bradbury for over a decade as his authorized biographer, I am thrilled to participate.
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“Fahrenheit 451” is one of those rare books that transcend time and generations. But why? Why does this short 50,000-word novel continue to have such cultural relevance?
Even Ray Bradbury was somewhat vexed by the waxing success of his novel over the decades.
“I was just writing an adventure novel,” he told me on multiple occasions. Bradbury described his book as “a fugitive chase disguised as literature,” in reference to the plotline of a fireman who burns books for a living and one-day decides to take one home to see what all the fuss is about. When Guy Montag discovers the magic, wonder, philosophy and poetry inside books, he leaves his life as a book burner behind and becomes a bibliophilic fugitive in a society where books are illegal.
Having spent hundreds of hours in conversation with Bradbury — and having studied “Fahrenheit 451” closely through the lenses of biographical, cultural and historical criticism — I have my theories as to its literary longevity. “Fahrenheit 451” was Bradbury’s perfect storm. Everything came together for the author when he wrote the book in just nine days on a rented typewriter (rental cost — $9.80) in the basement of the Powell Library on the campus of the University of California Los Angeles.
Bradbury’s writing speed gave “Fahrenheit 451” an undeniable narrative movement, a gripping river of story that flows from the onset.
He used the genre of science fiction as a shrewd means to muse on not the future but the present. He focused on the rising importance of technology and its hypnotic allure, which draws us ever further from books and face-to-face conversation.
Bradbury had no way of knowing that in 2016, many millennials would favor text conversations and Facebook “friends” over the real thing. The near psychic level of cultural prognostication in the book is uncanny. Bradbury worried that the rise of mass media and the growing importance of technology in our lives could become debilitating. He also knew society would become less educated.
Along with his role as sociological seer, Bradbury’s language in the book is near perfect. “Fahrenheit 451” contains some absolutely majestic prose, which is poetic and rich in metaphor. “Fahrenheit 451” is simply a beautifully written book.
And like all good stories, at the epicenter of the novel is a profound question: What would happen to a world if books went away forever? As Ray Bradbury cautions us in his magnum opus, we don’t ever want to know.
Sam Weller is an associate professor in the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago and the award-winning biographer of Ray Bradbury. Follow him on Twitter: @Sam__Weller.