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Joseph Joffo

Fahrenheit 451 is a story of a dystopia where books, considered threatening to human pleasure, are destroyed. The story, frighteningly true to contemporary life, is not so much one of books and discussion being outlawed for presenting dissenting ideas (as it is commonly thought) as one of dramatizing the threat of television that reduces knowledge to factoids and distracts individuals from significant aspects of life.

There is much about the book that is prophetic of today. The Seashell, for example, is reminiscent of the iPod. Television has become far larger than it was in Bradbury's time, at times encompassing the three or four walls mentioned in Fahrenheit 451. Increasingly more work positions have become sinecures, with robots taking the place of humans, while the lives of people, as a whole, have become cheaper and that of machines more expensive. Indeed, Montag's observation watching the impersonal physicians ministering to Mildred sounds all too familiar:

There are too many of us, he thought. There are billions of us, and that's too many. Nobody knows anyone. Strangers come and violate you. Strangers come and cut your heart out. Strangers come and take your blood (p.16).

Technology and entertainment, the only two subjects allowed in Montag's society, have achieved an overly significant niche in our own time. Meanwhile, such subjects as the arts and philosophy have, at least in North America, been granted secondary space. The term "minorities" has expanded into a spectrum of splinter groups and sensitivity to their needs. Life is becoming increasingly faster-paced, and with that, the need for thinking (particularly with the advent of the Internet) has shrunk. Beetles, super-fast vehicles, are a fixture of our times, as is human cruelty—though perhaps not to the extent dramatized in Fahrenheit 451. Finally, although not conclusively, war is as much a component of modern times as it was then.

Fahrenheit 451 is based on a previous short story entitled The Bright Phoenix (1947). Apparently, Bradbury was much inspired by the message of the analogy of the Phoenix used to illustrate man's irrationality:

There was a silly damn bird called a Phoenix back before Christ: every few hundred years he built a pyre and burned himself up. He must have been first cousin to man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we're doing the same thing, over and over (Fahrenheit 451, p163).

Fahrenheit 451 elaborates on that point. Humans allow themselves to be irrational and civilization after civilization burns itself in flames not allowing themselves to learn from their mistakes or, as is the case with this one, not allowing themselves altogether to learn and instruct themselves. Fahrenheit 451 is Bradbury's epistle to his own times:

We’ve got one damn thing the Phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we've done for a thousand years, and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we'll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them (ibid.).

The Bright Phoenix later developed into the novella called The Fireman, which was published in February 1951 and, in turn, developed into Fahrenheit 451. The number 451 stands for the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns. The novel was serialized in three 1954 issues of Playboy, and the entire manuscript had been rapidly typed out in the basement of UCLA'sPowell Library on a rented typewriter that cost Bradbury 10 cents per half hour.

BBC Radio, later, produced a one-off dramatization of the novel in 1982 starring Michael Pennington, broadcast again on February 12, 2012 on BBC Radio 4 Extra, while the Off-BroadwayAmerican Place Theatre performed Fahrenheit 451 as a part of their 2008–2009 Literature to Life season (The American Place Theatre). The novel was adapted into a computer text adventure game in 1986.

Fahrenheit 451 continues to resonate with modern readers, particularly since technologies envisioned by Bradbury in an earlier age have come true. These include inventions such as banking ATMs, earbuds, and Bluetooth headsets. The influence of his work has been rated by fans such as Steven Spielberg (Zeitchik, 2006) as immortal.

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