Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 [audiobook, read by the author] (Ballantine, 1953; Harper Collins Audio, 2001)

"Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?" — Clarisse McClellan

Guy Montag is a "fireman." With a kerosene hose, he sets fire to books and the houses that contain them. For the span of ten years, he doesn't question it until he meets Clarisse McClellan, a seventeen-year-old girl on his street. Montag's conversation with Clarisse puts the first germ of divergent thought in his mind. Then, when a woman who will not leave her book-ridden house perishes in the ensuing flames, they come to the surface — questions and doubts that culminate in him mindlessly filching a book from another burn site and taking it home.

Montag's questions lead him to Faber, a professor. Faber befriends the "enemy" and teaches Montag the life that is contained in books. Meanwhile, fire captain Beatty explains to Montag how the "rules" were made by the public, that the firemen are there to enforce the already-extant prejudices of the populace. The firemen aren't really even needed anymore, people didn't want to read, anyway. It was too dangerous. It was easier to rid their world of treacherous, deviant books.

Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too... Let's not quibble over individuals with memoriums. Forget them. Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.
Originally written in 1950 in the form of a short story called "The Fireman," Fahrenheit 451 remains timely, and scarily prescient. Attempts to censor reading materials are so prevalent that the American Library Association keeps a list of books that have been "challenged," or requested for removal from libraries — both school and public — and publicizes the numbers each year during Banned Books Week. (Surprisingly or not, the book series most credited with bringing children back to reading — Harry Potter — was also the most challenged in 2001 and 2002.) People don't want their children (or anybody's, apparently) being exposed to anything that will make them question the values their parents have forced upon them. But I digress....

At less than two hundred pages, Fahrenheit 451 still has its slow parts, but, at this point, it is not a book that is necessarily read for simple fun, but also due to its "classic" status. There is plenty of entertainment to be had for the put-upon reader, but the book is mostly a portrait of what could happen if a vocal minority were allowed to control what books (if any) we are allowed to read. Passion fuels Fahrenheit 451 more than plot, but Ray Bradbury's tales have always shown his various passions. Passion for imagination, passion for nostalgia, passion for people, and, most of all, passion for writing. When we enter his world, we are invited to share in his passions and that, in addition to what we experience in the stories, is what keeps us coming back time after time.

This audiobook version, read by Ray Bradbury himself, is an excellent reading that nevertheless suffers in one manner. The author, in his advancing age, has become mildly thick-tongued — possibly due to a stroke suffered in 1999. This slurs his pronunciation of some words. It does not affect the enjoyment of the story, but at the beginning was distracting. I eventually got used to it and the rest of the story flowed marvelously; this is simply something to take into consideration when considering which version of the book to experience.

[Craig Clarke]