Monday, December 31, 2012

Fire: Fahrenheit 451 and The Book Thief

I first read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 a long time ago, probably in high school: about all I remembered until last week was that firemen started fires rather than preventing them. And their specialty was burning books, which were outlawed.

Same as mine.
Price: $1.25 
When Ray Bradbury died earlier this year and I read, a little later, Russian fiction that referred to him, I took out my old copy of Fahrenheit 451. The glue in the binding cracked and the pages were yellowed, but the story itself felt ridiculously up-to-the-minute, despite having been written in the fifties. The biggest surprise was that Bradbury all but predicted reality TV, viewers’ extreme attachment to TV characters they think of as family, and viewers’ extreme attachment to their TV parlors and equipment. Even Christ has become one of the TV family, making, as one character says, “veiled references to certain commercial products that every worshiper absolutely needs.”

The personal stories of Guy Montag, the fireman who begins collecting books and doubting his work, and his TV-addled wife Millie, felt secondary to me compared to Bradbury’s dystopian world, where people drive so super-fast that billboards are super-long and people no longer listen to each other because their TV friends seem realer than their real friends.

[Now, watch out for spoilers…] Montag’s sudden, fiery separation from his job and his wife are less surprising than the fact that his escape is carefully tracked and presented by the media. Even more interesting, though, is that Montag finds readers—some are former professors—who memorize books so they can recite them. This reminded me of Soviet-era samizdat (self-publishing, often on a typewriter) and memorization of forbidden poems. The idea of carrying books around in one’s head, combined with the pictures of future TV and the relative peace outside the city (there’s also a war going on…) made the book well worth rereading.

I read another book involving book burning—Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief—but it’s set in the past, Nazi Germany, instead of the future. The Book Thief is probably as familiar these days as Fahrenheit 451 so I won’t go into detail... you probably already know, for example, that Death narrates this thick novel about a girl named Liesel Meminger who goes to live with a foster family in a town called Molching. I very rarely read young adult books but this one caught me, probably because I thought Zusak made a wise choice in making Death his first-person narrator. For one thing, as an omnipresent and omnipotent narrator, Death can offer, occasionally and a bit officiously, historical details that readers might or might not already know. But Death (the narrator) is also surprisingly compassionate and humorous, as is Zusak’s book, thanks to characters like Liesel the book thief, her accordion-playing foster father Hans, and her friend Rudy who reveres Jesse Owens, a dangerous habit in Nazi Germany.

Up Next: Quim Monzó’s A Thousand Morons.

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