Ten Books That Changed My Life #1: Fahrenheit 451

fahrenheit-451.jpgFahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury
Changed my life in October 1991

In January 1991, I started keeping a journal, one that I’ve kept persistently ever since. Each day, I would write down some of the big events that happened during the day, what the weather was like, and so forth. I also kept detailed notes on the books I read and the music I listened to and my reflections on them. I had already had some epiphanies about the power of music, but I still mostly thought of books as forms of entertainment.

Then Guy Montag entered my life and everything changed.

Fahrenheit 451 was the first book I ever read that left me thinking about my own value structure thereafter. It awakened me to the possibility that a book was more than a simple form of entertainment and left me asking fundamental questions about life and freedom that I’ve never adequately answered. In many ways, these questions led me to blogging which for me is a literary expression of self-discovery.

What’s it about?

Without revealing too much, the book tells the story of Guy Montag, a “fireman” in a future America where firemen burn books. This future America is actually rather frightening: as television becomes more prevalent and more interactive, books are seen by general society as being evil, containing critical thoughts that are better off banished.

Montag is quite happy burning books until he meets Clarisee McClellan, a teenage girl who lives in his neighborhood. She doesn’t convince him to read books, per se, but she simply points out that there are more things to life than television and work. It is her disappearance that makes Guy start to question things, but it is the burning of the home of an elderly woman with a large book collection that really makes him question whether society is healthy or not. He pockets one of the woman’s books and then begins hoarding books for himself.

Before long, he finds himself targeted by the firemen and is given the order to burn down his own home. He refuses and is forced to run for his own life.

The purpose of the whole story is to relate the growth of Guy Montag as an individual over a backdrop of a society rejecting free thought, much like 1984 except with a different conclusion. Montag starts off as a follower, then becomes a questioner, then a learner, then eventually a leader, and this growth is based on realizing that intellectual acceptance without question is a very flawed path.

If you’d like another perspective on the contents of the book, the Wikipedia entry for Fahrenheit 451 is quite detailed and well-written.

How did Fahrenheit 451 affect the person I became?

It taught me to define my own values – and to regret when I let others define my values. This is literally what The Simple Dollar is all about. For too long, I let the values of others – materialism and consumerism – override my own values, and it is something that fills me with regret on a daily basis. My finances were one of the last areas where I let others have so much influence over me; I kept letting the lifestyle of my peer group pull me along for far too long. Every time I have evaluated a portion of my life and put effort into aligning them with my core values, I’ve grown as an individual – and it all began with Fahrenheit 451.

It taught me to question everything. Reading this book was much like a light switch flipping on in my head. I realized that there were many, many things in life that I just took for granted, particularly in terms of how society and day-to-day life worked. Here’s an example: after reading this book, we were in the middle of a section at school where we studied World War II. I spent so much time questioning why the Germans simply accepted this that my teacher, out of frustration, called a professor at the local university to discuss this matter with me. I never stopped questioning things.

It taught me that obsession with popular culture puts blinders on your perspective on the world. It’s fine to be entertained by something, but when I finished reading this book, I looked at television in a much different light. I wound up spending about two years abstaining from television and even now I watch television rarely, and when I do it’s usually in sidelong glances while doing something else. I discovered that popular culture is like the shiniest trinket in an antique shop: it will attract most of the eyes, but the really interesting things are usually elsewhere.

It taught me to value books – in a certain way. Prior to reading Fahrenheit 451, I would read all sorts of things, most of them junk. After I read it, I got a lot more picky. I still enjoyed being entertained by books, but now I felt as though I had wasted my time if they weren’t enlightening. I spent a year reading a lot of classic literature after reading this book; most of them made me think quite a lot, but it was Fahrenheit 451 that provided the original spark.

It first brought about a desire in me to become a writer. Guy Montag was the first literary character that sprang out of the pages and came alive to me, and it seemed like a magic trick. It still does; it’s a trick that I keep working on mastering. Whenever I feel lost as a writer, Ray Bradbury is still one of the first authors that I turn to for inspiration.

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  1. Cecil says:

    Great post! I like the idea, keep it coming. I’ve never read the book but have heard a lot about it. Looking forward to the next 9. Also, great blog! It’s funny it took a book post to get me out of lurker mode!

  2. gen3ric says:

    Great review. I really enjoy your book reviews. I’ve never read this one, but now I might pick up a copy. Thanks.

  3. GHoosdum says:

    I was under the impression that Fahrenheit 451 was required reading in either middle school or high school in most places. I believe I’ve read it three times. I’ve always been a fan of social & science fiction, and the first time I read the book was when I was eight. I didn’t fully understand most of what I read at that time, but in my subsequent readings the meaning of the book became more clear to me. I can fully understand why it would be a life-changing work for you. I look forward to reading the remainder of this series on your blog.

  4. Bobby says:

    “…but it was Fahrenheit 451 that provided the original spark.” Ha ha, no pun intended, right?

    I must agree with your evaluation. I read this for the first time about 3 years ago as I grew up reading more fantasy. It riveted me and I still think about this version of society. Scary to think about, but could it happen one day?

  5. hollesdottir says:

    Thanks for this post. I am really interested in how books have changed people’s lives. I am looking forward to the rest of your list.

  6. Consider tagging all the “10 books” posts with 10 or ten etc. It would be easy for your readers to get to the 10 (+1 overview) easily !

  7. Logan says:

    I read your review with interest, as I can name-check the book though I’ve never read it. It dawned on me as I went through your plot summary that this has been made into a film recently: ‘Equilibrium’ starring Christian Bale. I mention it because (particularly with the works of Shakespeare) the easiest way into literature is often through film. As a standalone film it’s an average Matrix-clone, but it delivers the same message as Bradbury’s and is a more thoughtful distraction than most Hollywood fare.

  8. Thomas Henrici says:

    I recently read this book and it is very interesting how similar both our society and the 451 society is. With political correctness or “everyone being treated the same” and the same 5 media companies controling what we watch, are we following the same path as the society in the book?

  9. Pavel says:

    I have just finished reading this book. Recently, I was browsing in your archives for inspiration. It changed the way i was thinking. Thank you for this article and i also thank you that you showed me i can read one book a week easily.

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