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The mantra of what if

Gypsy tea leaves and crystal balls magically reveal the future. Writers, too, use their words to provoke future ideas. The mantra calls: What if..what if? These enticing words chant their question and the writer responds with a speculative answer.

The Author and his Famous Book
Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

In the book, "Fahrenheit 451", Ray Bradbury poses a crisis situation in which government controls society and destroys its intellectual future. The third generation firefighter main character, Guy Montag, finds himself at odds with his government position that demands that he burn books. His fire captain, Beatty, feels that books have deceived him, His disgust for the process of education has created intense dissatisfaction from the books he has read. He directs the government project of censorship and the destruction of books.

Without books as a guide to life, the population, including Montag’s wife, Mildred, become obsessed with television now viewed on life size screens, Government has created a new reality that hooks viewers into a world of make believe people consumed by material pleasures and artificial relationships.

While Mildred separates from reality, Montag becomes exposed to books through the influence of Beatty’s next door neighbor, the seventeen year old Clarisse McClellan. His fascination with McClellan’s happy, curious nature soon puts him in conflict with his position as a burner of books.

Sadly, McClellan is silenced by the government. With her death, it appears that Bradbury symbolically uses the victimization of an innocent to portray the power of an overreaching government and its need to prevent independent thought in order to control the population.

While Montag’s life is transformed by books, Mildred attempts suicide. Her only connection with reality continues to be found within the pixels of her television family. As she is reduced to a mere shell of a human being, Montag shrugs off his firefighter’s uniform. He seeks refuge with a group of nomadic people, committed to preserving classic works of literature through memorization.

This book was published in 1953. How did Bradbury have the ability to foresee 51 inch and larger television sets attached to living room walls? Human beings mesmerized by 2” X 4” communicative devices that separate us more and more from family life? Yes. At age 15, Bradbury had seen the burning of books in the Holocaust. And as Beatty said, “Forget them. Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.”

And as Bradbury’s title reveals, it requires 451 Fahrenheit heat degrees to burn and destroy books. Now the dilemma reappears. The mantra beckons, “What if?” As the need for books as a physical entity is diminished, the question arises. Which books will be selected to be stored? Who will decide which will be set aside or, in Bradbury’s sense, burned. Are these electronic devices the transformers of the 21st century or are they the fire filled Beatty destroyers of an intellectual society?

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