Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the Joys of Book Ownership

Ray Bradbury’s work is most often discussed in the context of censorship and the restrictions in the flow of ideas. But it is also fundamentally a novel about book ownership, in fact this comes through just as clearly because of the physical nature of the book burnings that represent censorship in this text. Examining Bradbury’s novel in the context of book ownership perhaps says something slightly different about the nature of books and about the joys of owning them. As an avid collector of books, I am well on my way to being a book hoarder but I think Bradbury’s novel justifies that collection in the face of the inconvenience that collection provides to those I live with.

In the world of Fahrenheit 451 books did not become illegal all at once, they were condensed and moved into different formats until they didn’t exist at all and the vast majority of the population accepted their banning largely without complaint. Setting aside the censorship aspect this decline of the physical book is not hugely different from what is happening today. Some of the shift is valuable, making stories available to those who would not be able to access them in physical form, but in other ways it speaks to the same reduction of attention span that Bradbury is writing about. Bradbury indicates that by condensing and changing the nature of the texts the world of Fahrenheit 451 had also robbed them of their power. There is a lot of power in the books that I own, many of which are used and came to me through different owners. This is not exactly the same fundamental nature of the story that I think Bradbury is trying to talk about, but it is an added layer of meaning that is only available because I collect these texts in their physical form. Books can come from family members, or include marginalia that allude to the identity of strangers from the book’s history. The provenance of objects is important in the world of art collecting or museums, but it also often factors into the emotional ties a collector has to their books.

Possessing an object that has its own history is not the only value that Bradbury’s book hoarders place on their collections, having these collections protects the information inside them from destruction. Throughout the novel it is clear that this is a society that used to read but has lost that liberty, and while a tv show can be taken off the air each copy of a book must be tracked down and destroyed. There is a powerful control of information involved in book ownership, not just in the novel but in the real world as well. Personally possessing an encyclopedia set printed in the early sixties allows a look back into how far science and social issues have come since then, rather than relying on an internet page that can be easily edited. The book lovers of Fahrenheit 451 also memorize the books they own but it is merely a safety precautions for if the physical books are destroyed, the goal is always to create a new library of physical copies once it is safe to do so.

Aside from the fact that the book hoarders in the novel view themselves as doing important work for the survival of literature they are also clearly deeply attached to their books. From the beginning of the novel this is set up as something to be in awe of as Montag is deeply affected by the old woman’s choice to die with her books. This is not just an attachment to the stories; this is a love of the books themselves and appears as one of the striking images of the novel. In the modern setting dying with one’s books would be insane but as with many of the other extreme moments in the text it still reflects the emotional connection collectors in the real world often feel for their books. It isn’t a matter of loving the books enough to die for them, but rather it is looking around and see a well-loved project that built a collection from a few picture books into a whole library.

In the current political climate and for the sake of high school essays Fahrenheit 451 may be focused on the nature of censorship but with the rising tide of technology there is also something to be said for what the novel suggests about book ownership. Having a large personal library has already shifted from the status marker it used to be into something of an eccentricity but the benefits of having a collection of physical books still stand. There is a history of ownership in a physical copy of a book that is absent in other media and information can be preserved better when it can’t simply be deleted but just as in Bradbury’s dystopian world the collectors of books are emotionally attached to their books, not just the stories inside of them. As technology brings us closer to the ‘parlor walls’ of Bradbury’s world there is value to be gained from reading Fahrenheit 451 in the context of book ownership, if only to consider why those of us who keep large personal libraries choose to do so even when there are other more practical media available.

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