An Asbestos-Bound, Fireproof Edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

Even by the extreme stan­dards of dystopi­an fic­tion, the premise of Ray Bradbury’s Fahren­heit 451 can seem a lit­tle absurd. Fire­men whose job is to set fires? A soci­ety that bans all books? Writ­ten less than a decade after the fall of the Third Reich, which announced its evil inten­tions with book burn­ings, the nov­el explic­it­ly evokes the kind of total­i­tar­i­an­ism that seeks to destroy culture—and whole peoples—with fire. But not even the Nazis banned all books. Not a few aca­d­e­mics and writ­ers sur­vived or thrived in Nazi Ger­many by hew­ing to the ide­o­log­i­cal ortho­doxy (or at least not chal­leng­ing it), which, for all its ter­ri­fy­ing irra­tional­ism, kept up some sem­blance of an intel­lec­tu­al veneer.

The nov­el also recalls the Sovi­et vari­ety of state repres­sion. But the Par­ty appa­ra­tus also allowed a pub­lish­ing indus­try to oper­ate, under its strict con­straints. Nonethe­less, Sovi­et cen­sor­ship is leg­endary, as is the sur­vival of banned lit­er­a­ture through self-pub­lish­ing and mem­o­riza­tion, vivid­ly rep­re­sent­ed by the famous line in Mikhail Bulgokov’s The Mas­ter and Mar­gari­ta, “Man­u­scripts don’t burn.”

Bul­gakov, writes Nathaniel Rich at Guer­ni­ca, is say­ing that “great lit­er­a­ture… is fire­proof. It sur­vives its crit­ics, its cen­sors, and even the pas­sage of time.” Bul­gakov wrote from painful expe­ri­ence. When his diary was dis­cov­ered by the NKVD in 1929, then returned to him, he “prompt­ly burned it.” Some­time after­ward, dur­ing the long com­po­si­tion of his posthu­mous­ly pub­lished nov­el, he burned the man­u­script, then lat­er recon­struct­ed it from mem­o­ry.

These exam­ples bring to mind the exiled intel­lec­tu­als in Bradbury’s nov­el, who have mem­o­rized whole books in order to one day recon­struct lit­er­ary cul­ture. Europe’s total­i­tar­i­an regimes pro­vide essen­tial back­ground for the novel’s plot and imagery, but its key con­text, Brad­bury him­self not­ed in a 1956 radio inter­view, was the anti-Com­mu­nist para­noia of the U.S. in the ear­ly 1950s. “Too many peo­ple were afraid of their shad­ows,” he said, “there was a threat of book burn­ing. Many of the books were being tak­en off the shelves at that time.” Read­ing the nov­el as a chill­ing vision of a future when all books are banned and burned makes the arti­fact pic­tured above par­tic­u­lar­ly poignant—an edi­tion of Fahren­heit 451 bound in fire­proof asbestos.

Released in 1953 by Bal­lan­tine in a lim­it­ed run of two-hun­dred signed copies, the books were “bound in Johns-Manville Qin­ter­ra,” notes Lau­ren Davis at io9, “a chryso­lite asbestos mate­r­i­al.” Now the fire­proof cov­ers, with their “excep­tion­al resis­tance to pyrol­y­sis,” are “much sought after by col­lec­tors” and go for upwards of $20,000. A fire­proof Fahren­heit 451, on the one hand, can seem a lit­tle gim­micky (its pages still burn, after all). But it’s also the per­fect man­i­fes­ta­tion of a lit­er­al inter­pre­ta­tion of the nov­el as a sto­ry about ban­ning and book burn­ing. All of us who have read the nov­el have like­ly read it this way, as a vision of a repres­sive total­i­tar­i­an night­mare. As such, it feels like a prod­uct of mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry fears.

Rather than fear­ing mass book burn­ings, we seem, in the 21st cen­tu­ry, on the verge of being washed away in a sea of infor­ma­tion (and dis- and mis-infor­ma­tion). We are inun­dat­ed with writing—in print and online—such that some of us despair of ever find­ing time to read the accu­mu­lat­ing piles of books and arti­cles that dai­ly sur­round us, phys­i­cal­ly and vir­tu­al­ly. But although books are still pub­lished in the mil­lions, with sales ris­ing, falling, then ris­ing again, the num­ber of peo­ple who actu­al­ly read seems in dan­ger of rapid­ly dimin­ish­ing. And this, Brad­bury also said, was his real fear. “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a cul­ture,” he claimed, “just get peo­ple to stop read­ing them.”

We’ve mis­read Fahren­heit 451, Brad­bury told us in his lat­er years. It is an alle­go­ry, a sym­bol­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a gross­ly dumb­ed-down soci­ety, huge­ly oppres­sive and destruc­tive in its own way. The fire­men are not lit­er­al gov­ern­ment agents but sym­bol­ic of the forces of mass dis­trac­tion, which dis­sem­i­nate “fac­toids,” lies, and half-truths as sub­sti­tutes for knowl­edge. The nov­el, he said, is actu­al­ly about peo­ple “being turned into morons by TV.” Add to this the pro­lif­er­at­ing amuse­ments of the online world, video games, etc. and we can see Brad­bury’s Fahren­heit 451 not as a dat­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tion of 40s fas­cism or 50s repres­sion, but as a too-rel­e­vant warn­ing to a dis­tractible soci­ety that deval­ues and destroys edu­ca­tion and fac­tu­al knowl­edge even as we have more access than ever to lit­er­a­ture of every kind.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ray Brad­bury Reveals the True Mean­ing of Fahren­heit 451: It’s Not About Cen­sor­ship, But Peo­ple “Being Turned Into Morons by TV”

Ray Brad­bury Explains Why Lit­er­a­ture is the Safe­ty Valve of Civ­i­liza­tion (in Which Case We Need More Lit­er­a­ture!)

Helen Keller Writes a Let­ter to Nazi Stu­dents Before They Burn Her Book: “His­to­ry Has Taught You Noth­ing If You Think You Can Kill Ideas” (1933)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Anthony says:

    The idea of a soci­ety that bans books is meant to be provoca­tive. It is far from absurd in a work of fic­tion. It is meant to have the read­er become acquaint­ed with the feel­ing one gets when the mate­r­i­al one may read is cen­sored as it is today in the Unit­ed States and many West­ern coun­tries where the media are in such syn­chrony that peo­ple know they are get­ting lit­tle more that tripe, just as the Sovi­ets and those in East Berlin knew. The dif­fer­ence is that they could talk about it with­out being called a nut. There are oth­er means oth­er than burn­ing. In the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, on more than one occa­sion a pub­lish­er was ordered to PULP an entire print run for the sim­ple rea­son that the sub­ject was found not to the think­ing of some self appoint­ed cen­sor or group of cen­sors. Today more than ever peo­ple are in goose step­ping for­ma­tions com­ply­ing with ‘polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness’. Now is as good a time as ever to reprint Brad­bury’s most pop­u­lar nov­el, F451, and as the author above observes, it is most rel­e­vant in the 21st cen­tu­ry.

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