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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
(Voyager Classics, 7.99, 172 pages, paperback; first published 1953; this edition June 2001.)

A new movie of Fahrenheit 451 is planned. Mel Gibson's company has already cover scandeveloped the script, and handed it to Frank Darabont to direct. He made The Shawshank Redemption, so he might not screw it up completely. Unlike the previous attempt, which was an oddity, this would be a mainstream Hollywood movie.

It's a nice thought: a Hollywood movie which rails against the dumbing-down of society, and pleads for its audience to read books rather than wasting time with cheap and easy visual media. If the movie-makers had real guts, they'd just put a notice on the screen for ninety minutes: "Walk out of this cinema, go home, and read the book instead."

But why should they? Why should anyone read this vision of a future dystopia which was written almost fifty years ago?

After all, none of Bradbury's predictions have come true. Books aren't burnt. They aren't even ignored or marginalised. More are published than ever before. The dotcom revolution was led by an online bookshop. So, why bother to read a dystopian vision that might have looked plausible when it was published, but now seems dated and quaint?

Well, it's interesting as a historical document. It was published in 1953, and can be read as a perfect illustration of a society reeling out of the Second World War and into the Cold War. There are nice details stolen from Hitler's Germany - everyone drives Beetles, for instance - and it has the atmosphere of McCarthy's America: distrust, paranoia, and the constant nuclear threat.

The themes of the book still have relevance. Bradbury portrays a society that demands contentment. Nothing is allowed to disturb the calm lives of the population. Books have been replaced by TV, sports, games, and other unchallenging pleasures. As one of the characters says so eloquently:

"More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don't have to think, eh? Organize and organize and super-organize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less."

At times, Bradbury's didacticism is tiring, and some of his targets are obvious. At other times, he has a magnificent Blakean fury at the horrors of an industrial society - whether capitalist or communist or totalitarian - which strains every sinew to prevent a single interesting or individual thought passing across the mind of a single member of its population.

Amongst the polemics, there is also a good story, although it has blatant flaws. The ending is a particular disappointment. However, it's a crisp read, and the narrative doesn't let you think of much else until you reach the last page.

These are all good reasons to read this book, but there is one overriding reason that I would urge you to read or re-read it: the bilious brilliance of its prose. It's written in a gush. Sentences stream past without pausing to worry whether they make sense. There are passages where the words seem to fuse with the ideas that they express, and spark, and crackle, as if the book itself will burst into flame, spontaneously combusting with the force of its own passion.

I would like to quote the Fire Captain's lecture, a torrent of furious, glorious prose and a stunning indictment of modern society's horrors, but it is several pages long. Instead, here is his command to a woman who refuses to give up her books. This could be etched over the doorway of every bookshop, an ironic paean to the pleasure and necessity of reading fiction.

"You know the law," said Beatty. "Where's your common sense? None of these books agree with each other. You've been locked up here for years with a regular damned Tower of Babel. Snap out of it! The people in these books never lived. Come on now!"

Review by Josh Lacey.

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© Josh Lacey 25 August 2001