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Montag is a man whose profession as fireman is to burn books. Montag enjoys his job. One night, after he has completed a book burning and is returning home, he encounters a pedestrian. This was a girl of seventeen, his new neighbor named Clarissa McClellan, who questions him about his job and casually informs him that a long time ago, firemen put out fires instead of kindling them. The girl makes Montag uneasy because she thinks too much and perplexes him with her thoughts. She informs him that her parents and uncle enjoy sitting around talking and then, before disappearing, asks him simply if he is happy.

Entering his house, he finds that his wife, Mildred, has swallowed too many sleeping capsules and summons the Emergency Hospital. Two impersonal operators arrive, and Montag is disturbed by the callous, detached manner with which these operators treat the patient. The operators say that since so many people need their help, they had special machines built to service them.

Mildred recovers. She denies taking the sleeping pills. Montag finds himself unable to stop thinking about Clarissa and her unusual family.

He encounters Clarissa again walking in the rain. Her perplexing conversation titillates him and makes him think. She informs him that she goes to a psychiatrist for walking around and watching nature. She comments that she thinks it incompatible with his character that he is a fireman.

Back at the firehouse, Montag feels uneasy with the Mechanical Hound, who seems to dislike him. Montag has a secret that he is afraid the Hound senses, particularly since the Hound is programmed to search out its targets.

Clarissa accompanies Montag almost every day, talking to him about nature, but one day she disappears.

At about the same time, Montag is summoned to a house where someone reported a forbidden stock of books. Mrs. Blake, the possessor of the books, prefers to be burned with her books rather than escape. Montag, disturbed by the debacle, manages surreptitiously to hide one volume from the carnage.

One day, Mildred casually tells him that Clarissa had been run over by a car four days ago and is dead. Another day, Montag refuses to go to work, giving the excuse that he is sick. He has become increasingly disturbed by the ramifications of his work and by the memory of the woman who burned herself for her books. Beatty, the chief fireman, inquiring into Montag’s absence, relates to him the history of the burning of books. Ever since the Civil War, invasions began to involve mass media: films, radios, and cameras. As a result, books, to retain their appeal, began to be condensed into digests. All was abridged: "School was shortened, discipline, relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored" (55). Sports and entertainment predominated, so as to distract people from the arduousness of reflection. Cars were made to go faster; walking was discouraged; people wandered aimlessly.

An additional problem with books was not only that they were too lengthy, thus leading people into the uncomfortable labor of thinking, but also that they were too generic, neglecting to include the immensity and diversity of all possible minorities (which included dog lovers, cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Brooklynites, people from Oregon or Mexico, and so on). This would be unprofitable for booksellers.

Finally, books disturbed the public, with its knowledge about such unpalatable things as disease and death; it was much better to burn them than to discomfit people, particularly since titillation and pleasure were the objectives of this society. For these reasons, books became unprofitable, and the new government—driven by technology, mass pressure, and minority influence—decreed that books be burned. The only material retained was the comic books, trade journals, and three-dimensional sex magazines.

With the realms of sport and entertainment becoming more important than education, the term "intellectual" became derogatory. The US Constitution had decreed that all were born equal, but IQ fostered distinctions. In order to retain the significance of the otherwise unnecessary job of fireman (since all domiciles had become fireproof), the new job of book burning was created. Montag, a third generation fireman, was one of those individuals granted this prestigious position.

In the meantime, Mildred has discovered the book that Montag has secreted under his pillow, and Beatty informs Montag that firemen are allowed to keep pilfered books for 24 hours before turning them in. Later alone, Montag informs his scared and unwilling wife that he has, over the years, secreted a mound of approximately 20 books behind his ventilator. He starts to read one to his wife.

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