I was in seventh grade the first time that I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I wasn’t a particular fan of science fiction, nor was I a fan of dystopian fiction. That being said, Fahrenheit 451 didn’t even register as belonging to a genre as I read it.
Bradbury’s language was so rich and real and immediate that I remember being as convinced of the world he built as I was of any “real” setting. I wanted to sink into every sentence. I wanted to wrap myself up in unexpected metaphors and lush allusions. I wanted to be a writer just like Bradbury.
After school the day that I finished reading Fahrenheit 451, I sat down to write Bradbury a letter. In this letter, I tried to express how much his book meant to me. I don’t remember now exactly what I wrote; I’m sure it was clumsy. What I do remember is including a small postscript informing him that I had enclosed an original short story, and would he please respond with any comments he might have.
Then I decorated the envelope with red and orange flames and stuck three stamps in the corner because it was so heavy. (It might have been generous to call my short story short.)
The next day, Ray Bradbury passed away. He was 91 years old, and my letter never got to him. I was devastated. Now, at 21 years old, I often wonder where that letter ended up.
As is obvious, I have a sentimental attachment to Fahrenheit 451, and that’s the main reason why I consider it to be such an influential and impactful book. However, it can certainly be called impactful based on its own merits, separate from the adoration of a melodramatic 13-year-old.
Fahrenheit 451 – the title refers to the temperature at which paper burns – is about a man named Guy Montag and a girl named Clarisse who live in a dystopian future. Montag is a fireman in a world in which a fireman’s job is to burn books and other illegal commodities. Clarisse is the odd girl who lives next door and introduces Montag to the necessity of the written word.
The plot is simple enough, and although it unfolds like a familiar dystopian novel to today’s readers, it was revolutionary at the time it was published. (For example, Bradbury predicted earpods with his concept of “seashell radios.” Read the book, and you’ll know what I mean!)
The thing that really sets Fahrenheit 451 apart from anything else I have ever read was the absolute lushness of the prose. When Bradbury writes, you can just tell how much he loves to write. It’s not even that his vocabulary is especially advanced or, even worse, intentionally abstruse. It’s the absolute giddiness with which he peppers the story with preposterous similes and absurd images that makes the reader feel as enchanted with words as Bradbury is himself.
For example, here is one of my favorite quotes in all of literature:
“‘I hate a Roman named Status Quo!’ he said to me. ‘Stuff your eyes with wonder,’ he said, ‘live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away.’”
Does Bradbury’s writing sometimes sound a little too decadent, a little too self-indulgent? Perhaps. But there’s no doubt that here was a writer who was in love with words, who allowed them to spin in all sorts of wonderful, unexpected, kaleidoscopic ways – and he left his indelible mark on me.