Book Club Notes: Fahrenheit 451
A writing group I joined last year has been attempting to start up a proper book club. Being a literary fiction group it’s hard to get many active people much less a book everyone can agree to read. This month our mods decided that we should just bite the bullet and get the ball rolling on the book club format by starting with something simple and any book with only three chapters is a perfect option for group discussion.
So far the plan is to read each section every week and discuss it on our discord server. I’m not going to post the link to it here but you can find it on reddit with context clues in that first paragraph. Anyway, in order to keep my notes sane and bloat up the content on this website while I wait for some component parts to come in so I can write about the keyboard build and my new airbrush, I’ll be posting my chapter/section notes here on the site. Each post is for the whole book and will have chapter breaks.
There will be spoilers.
This book was written in 1953, so we’ve all had plenty of time to read it. I read it for the first and last time in high school which was 20 years ago. Most of the key stuff I remember because it’s such an iconic work but there were some things I didn’t or concepts that were totally lost on me at 15 vs 35. I’ve not seen the new HBO show yet but we watched the 60’s movie back in school.
Fahrenheit 451: Section 1
Starts off with a big meaty first paragraph that tells us what ol’ Guy does for a living right after that well known first sentence “It’ was a pleasure to burn.” And it seems like this paragraph is the last time he ever finds pleasure in it cuz it’s all downhill from here for our Montag.
He is walking home from work at night, and meets the OG manic pixie dream girl – Clarisse. Yeah, this part is creepy and not something I caught 20 years ago. Montag’s voice is fine, but much of the action and description of a 17 year old girl gets a bit –yeah. Anyway, she pops up in order to snap Montag out of his view of the world. She tells him to look at things around him, to start questioning things the way a child would. Then she asks him if he is happy which utterly shatters his sense of reality.
Montag then gets to his house to find his critically depressed wife has taken an entire bottle of sleeping pills. This is apparently so common in this world that there is a service that runs around just to pump stomachs. Montag is still completely shaken by the fact a little kid asked him if he was happy so after his wife passes out again he takes a sleeping pill himself to go to bed. At this point I would assume, because it’s written in the 50’s, that the husband/wife dynamic where he goes out to work and she keeps the house would make sense to readers back then more than it does now because after this point I can’t stand Montag’s wife. Even in high school I couldn’t stand her and didn’t know why, she seemed like a ditzy Stepford Wife type of robot person but reading it now, it’s just worse.
Mildred spends all day watching interactive reality TV shows on the walls at full volume. When not watching what I can only assume to be the equivalent of Arrow/Flash/Vampire Diaries/Supernatural all day she has her earpods in listening to podcasts. Nothing wrong with this, all things in moderation, but she does this 24/7. Montag is trying to talk to her about her overdose and she just ignores him or flat out refuses to believe it happened. Imagine trying to do literally anything in your house with your wife while four TV’s are playing garbage shows at max volume 24/7. When Montag has a panic attack over having burned an old lady alive in her house the day before she just asks him if he is gonna go to work later that day anyway. By the end of the chapter Montag shows her his secret book stash in the house and she finally shows some response to the world even if it’s just shrieking. Bradbury did a good job of making her an empty husk of a human being. You would expect a wife to be concerned if her husband was sick, or remove her headphones he talks to her. She does none of this.
Now, I know that some people would read this as her coping with her own depression/crisis. She doesn’t work, has no kids, and just spends all day watching shows which would tell me something is upsetting her as well and unlike Montag, she doesn’t have the manic pixie dream girl next door to wake her up. Overdosing on sleeping pills is a huge flag, she just doesn’t know how to deal with the dystopian world even when she is given all the things she needs. I get that, but every other action she takes makes me want to serve her divorce papers. “Oh yeah our neighbor next door died four days ago, didn’t tell you even though you specifically mentioned her and can we get another TV so I can watch my Instagram stories while you’re at work?” “I know you had a bad day at work and all but I really need to practice the script for this show I’m watching later, hope you don’t mind that I’ll be ignoring you for the rest of the day, kthx.” …Get out.
There is a part where Montag snaps further, that I mentioned above, where he goes to work and tries to act normal again. He is becoming more aware of how messed up things actually are when he stops to notice it. They get a call to torch an old woman’s book stash, but when they get there she refuses to leave. His boss just has them burn it all anyway and Montag sneaks a book home with him. It’s somewhat obvious that his boss noticed this because he shows up the next day when Montag misses his shift and sits down to dump some much needed exposition on how this whole book burning situation got started (even though Montag has been a fireman for a decade). He basically tells us that if he were to get curious about reading one of the books he could, but wouldn’t find anything of value and would be given 24 hours to destroy it. It’s clear that this is a warning to him –get it out of your system or we’ll do it for you. He also has a lengthy rant about how the censorship of books came about due to what I can only see now as cancel culture. I’m willing to bet our group gets in an argument over this part because of modern politics alone.
Some folks thought it was strange that the books narrative about books being more thought-provoking or stimulating compared to the flashy fun entertainment they got on tv was overshadowed by the fact that the book itself is simply fun entertainment due to the lack of depth in the narrative. Others pointed out the lack of characters and how we only see a handful of people to judge this world by making them all sort of stereotypes of a larger population. We all weighed in on how inappropriate Clarisse was, how much more sense it would have made to have her be a 10 year old boy than a 16 year old girl to remind him of actually being a kid. Some disagreed with me on Montag’s wife, saying it wasn’t her fault she was a selfish nightmare of a wife because society groomed her to be this way. Even as a product of her environment she is a terrible person and it will take more than an emotional appeal to dissuade me on that.
Alright, Montag has been mainlining books for a few days… day?… hours? Not sure, I read this section in one night. We get an “Oh, by the way.” character in this one called Faber who Montag calls up to ask about his book stash. Faber is a retired English teacher who remembers the days before the books were banned etc and apparently they had met like –once– before this. So Montag takes a train to visit Faber and gets this cool in-ear walkie-talkie from him that he just so happened to have made just for this occasion! Thanks Gandalf.
So now he goes home and they’ve come up with some nonsense plan to ruin the Fireman. But that night was the night Montag’s wife’s IRL friends were coming over to watch TV. These women are carbon copies of Montag’s wife, which is a shame but I get it shows everyone is like her. They’re all army wives and are talking about how disposable their husbands and children were when Montag starts yelling at them and busts out a book of poems. His wife tries to laugh off this situation with “oh its a little game we play…he can show you how bad these are then we’ll burn it for fun” kinda thing. So Montag reads a poem causing one of the women to cry and another to get absolutely angry at him. In his earbud Faber-Gandalf is yelling at him to stop cuz he is screwing up their plans. They leave angry at him for upsetting their Sex in the City watch party.
Montag now has to go back to work and bring a book with him since he knows Beatty knows he has at least one of them. He sits down to play cards with the boys when Beatty just starts grilling him, name dropping book titles, popular lines from books, etc. Montag is ultra scared because he has Faber-Gandalf in his ear coaching him along and doesn’t want the earbud to be discovered. After Beatty finishes his verbal assault on how stupid Montag is, they get a call to go burn some books. They hop in the firetruck and drive down to Montag’s own house and he is – SURPRISED – by this.
This section was shorter than the first one I think and less happened in it so it was easier to digest. Some folks pointed out the issue that every woman in the book is a vapid moron or an underage girl. One person questioned why it was still taught in schools when other dystopian fiction has more depth, however they aren’t as short or easy to read as this one. Montag gets very physically and emotionally violent with his wife in this one, showing the books’ age as being written in the 50’s. One person pointed out that they didn’t even realize that a war was going on during the book until this section.
So this section starts out with the fireman at Montag’s house. Beatty is dishing out his standard psychological abuse and tells him to burn his books. His wife nopes out and we don’t see her again. A lot of stuff goes on in this section and it goes by so much quicker than the first two that it gets somewhat confusing. Beatty discovers the little Faber earpiece, or at least tells Montag he knew about for a while just to mess with him. Anyway, Montag is cornered at this point but luckily still holding the flamethrower Beatty made him use, so he uses it on Beatty. This is the best part of the book. Beatty deserved it. The Faber earbud gets burned however so now Montag is on his own and just bolts. He gets bit by one of the robot dogs and his leg goes numb so it takes him a while to escape, hiding in gas stations and ditching through neighborhoods its all really good and suspenseful.
At this point the cops are after him, robot dog is after him, he has 4 stars on his grand theft auto cop bar, etc. He is on his way to Faber’s house to regroup. At some point he stops to plant some books he got out his back yard in another fireman’s house as per the original plan of making all the fireman out to be hypocrites and shake up the system from the inside. Finally at Faber’s he gets some clothes and whiskey before making a break for the river outside of town where Faber has explained that some exiled book hippies live. They then attempt to clean up any trace of Montag’s scent at Faber’s house by running the sprinklers and wiping things down with alcohol because these robot dogs aren’t as good as real ones.
Montag makes it outside of town to this river that I can only assume is like the Guadalupe because he manages not to drown but float down it and chill. It’s your typical baptismal metaphor for rebirth when he gets out and has reflected upon his old life to go live a new one with these book hippies, considering the lilies and all. Reborn, he gets out and heads to the encampment which is lit by a fire. The head dude there, Granger, does the typical cult leader “We’ve been expecting you!” thing and offers him a drink, the born-again aspect is beaten in further when Montag is tasked with memorizing the Bible as his book. Each person in the group is tasked with memorizing a single book before burning it. If you haven’t grasped it by now Montag is now a changed man, and is given the daunting task of memorizing a disproportionately large volume of text compared to the lucky dude who gets Don Juan or a Shakespeare play.
Now for the strange part. So during this whole book the news reports bring up a war that’s coming. Millie’s friends are all army wives on their third husband. Bombers and jets fly over the city ever so often in preparation for war. However, the people in this town just brush it off as nothing that the war is coming to their town. For this whole book I just assumed that they were going away to war, or that any description of planes and such alluded to how fast the planes could leave and return from a battle. But nope. The war starts and just like that the city gets bombed. Full Dresden. GONE. “The city looked like a heap of baking powder”. The shockwave from it knocked everyone down a few moments after the bombs went off. The crew then head back to the city to help any survivors and help the city rise from the ashes to the tune of the phoenix themes spackled throughout the story.
If those were nukes, these guys are gonna be dead in like.. a few days? hours? Anyway, technicalities take away from the books point which is to show how you shouldn’t let technology consume your life and to think for yourself, not only what’s approved by the FDA or the current clique holding office. That people can change and think for themselves, etc. Rebirth in fire, the phoenix, the old testament. What’s jarring is the pacing and lack of explanation of whats actually going on around them. The first two sections are slow, covering just a couple of things that happen to the main character then the third is crammed with the escape, war, and return to the city. It’s pointed out that the people in this city/world don’t pay attention to anything around them that’s not in an earbud or on a tv screen so perhaps that’s why any and all descriptions of what the houses, town, the conflict leading to the war, history of the censorship (outside of Beatty’s 3 page infodump) is just not there. Everything is beetle shaped or what we can just assume is mid-century futuristic but knowing that for sure would make the transition from the city to the woods outside of it more distinct.
The book burning thing. Books in general are put on a pedestal in this story. Society sees them as outdated nonsense, dangerous things that provoke unwanted emotions, or simply bigoted in some way towards a minority group. They’ve decided to just up and cancel books, leaving the world with FDA approved and sanitized media easily consumed via instagram and podcasts (See how simple it is to relate it to modern tech?) to keep people happy. Just flood their day with enough new content to distract them from what they really feel and ignore the war going on outside their own house and wonder why they feel terrible. The outsiders, or people who used to be English teachers or writers, see books as this grand thing to save because they supposedly open the mind and allow for full expression of ideas. But I think that books can be used to a fault in the same way the mass media is. You could have Montag’s wife spend her whole day reading harlequin romance novels and complaining that Montag is nothing like the men in her stories. I think that books, like any other media, can be over-consumed in this way. Burning them is an over the top reaction by the government in an effort to keep people from being exposed to new ideas or bringing back old ones. Having the book hippies memorize old texts is a great component of the story, if only we had them back at the library of Alexandria. But are they being subjective with what they memorize or are they holding on to anything they can get? Is there a 12 year old girl memorizing Mein Kampf in there? Old man who knows the Communist Manifesto backwards and forwards? Is the resistance going to be torn apart later by the books they memorize? What if one group decides to stop the oral tradition and publish them again? All fun stuff the book can’t possibly cover in it’s short intro to them.
Anyway, still waiting on the rest of the writing group to finish the book to round out the discussion. So far a couple people have chimed in that they weren’t too stoked about the ending either. The questions as to why the book is still a huge deal in schools came back up. I can only assume it’s due to the things that were predicted in the past that came true today which means the kids can relate to stuff in it easier. That and it’s short, which makes it easier for a time crunched class to cover. Accessibility is key with this one.