# LITERATURE /// Book Burning / Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury


Still from the film Fahrenheit 451 by Francois Truffaut

I resume my short literary series of references texts whose object within the narrative (and therefore within the book) is precisely the book as an object.  I will eventually articulate them together in a forthcoming article. After Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Sand (see previous post), today is the turn of Fahrenheit 451 written by Ray Bradbury in 1953 and then adapted for cinema by Francois Truffaut in 1966. I already dedicated an article about the latter within the context of the series of the heterotopias in cinema. It addressed the end of the narrative when Montag discovers the forest of the human books, each man and woman embodying one book of their choice.

The following text is oppositely the beginning of the story in which Montag is a fireman, i.e. a man who burns books. The latter have been indeed forbidden for their ability to describe another world, and therefore, their invitation to embrace subversive (dis)orders. When Bradbury writes his book in 1953, the Nazi ‘autodafés ‘ (book burning ceremonials) still belong to a close history. In our own very recent history (this last year), the Koran has been burnt twice in a disturbing media coverage (no media, no drama). In Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s new historical film, Les Chants de Mandrin (Smugglers’ Songs) set in 18th century France, the police forces burn the contraband manifesto that smugglers attempt to spread around and that was printed clandestinely – as an anecdote, philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy plays the role of the pirate printer !

Books are very poetic objects. By being embodied by paper, they carry their own fragility and constitute their own combustible when a power decides to annihilate them. Books are the medium through which ideas acquires a virtual eternity and for this reason deserve to be passionately salvaged.  But this eternity is indeed only virtual as a small sparkle can inflame them and destroy them forever.

Fahrenheit 451 (excerpts)
By Ray Bradbury

IT was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.


Montag’s hand closed like a mouth, crushed the book with wild devotion, with an insanity of mindlessness to his chest. The men above were hurling shovelfuls of magazines into the dusty air. They fell like slaughtered birds and the woman stood below, like a small girl, among the bodies.
Montag had done nothing. His hand had done it all, his hand, with a brain of its own, with a conscience and a curiosity in each trembling finger, had turned thief.. Now, it plunged the book back under his arm, pressed it tight to sweating armpit, rushed out empty, with a magician’s flourish! Look here! Innocent! Look!
He gazed, shaken, at that white hand. He held it way out, as if he were far-sighted. He held it close, as if he were blind.
“Montag! ”
He jerked about.
“Don’t stand there, idiot!”
The books lay like great mounds of fishes left to dry. The men danced and slipped and fell over them. Titles glittered their golden eyes, falling, gone.
“Kerosene! They pumped the cold fluid from the numbered 451 tanks strapped to their shoulders. They coated each book, they pumped rooms full of it.
They hurried downstairs, Montag staggered after them in the kerosene fumes.
“Come on, woman!”
The woman knelt among the books, touching the drenched leather and cardboard, reading the gilt titles with her fingers while her eyes accused Montag.
“You can’t ever have my books,” she said.
“You know the law,” said Beatty. “Where’s your common sense? None of those books agree with each other. You’ve been locked up here for years with a regular damned Tower of Babel. Snap out of it! The people in those books never lived. Come on now! ”
She shook her head.
“The whole house is going up;” said Beatty,
The men walked clumsily to the door. They glanced back at Montag, who stood near the woman.
“You’re not leaving her here?” he protested.
“She won’t come.”
“Force her, then!”
Beatty raised his hand in which was concealed the igniter. “We’re due back at the house. Besides, these fanatics always try suicide; the pattern’s familiar.”
Montag placed his hand on the woman’s elbow. “You can come with me.”
“No,” she said. “Thank you, anyway.”
“I’m counting to ten,” said Beatty. “One. Two.”
“Please,” said Montag.
“Go on,” said the woman.
“Three. Four.”
“Here.” Montag pulled at the woman.
The woman replied quietly, “I want to stay here”
“Five. Six.”
“You can stop counting,” she said. She opened the fingers of one hand slightly and in the palm of the hand was a single slender object.
An ordinary kitchen match.
The sight of it rushed the men out and down away from the house. Captain Beatty, keeping his dignity, backed slowly through the front door, his pink face burnt and shiny from a thousand fires and night excitements. God, thought Montag, how true! Always at night the alarm comes. Never by day! Is it because the fire is prettier by night?

Bradbury Ray, Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine Books,1953.