Nobody inspires my passion for libraries, books and writing quite like Ray Bradbury. I’ll often read a chapter from his Zen in The Art of Writing with my first cup of coffee. His passion is an extra jolt of caffeine, kickstarting my morning writing session.
This morning he was talking about revisiting his Fahrenheit 451 characters over 20 years after publishing the book. The following passage is not in the original book, but from a stage play he wrote in the late 70s. Few writers have the ability to plumb the depths of human nature like Bradbury and I was inspired to share this passage.
Exploring the darkness of Beatty’s soul, Bradbury exposes the madness of a man embittered with life, ‘a failed Romantic’ who turned from a boy ‘wild for books’ into a man who burned them for a living.
“I called all my characters from F. 451 out of the shadows. What’s new, I said to Montag, Clarisse, Faber, Beatty, since last we met in 1953? In what secret ways have you grown? What can you tell me that you didn’t tell back in 1950 and 1953? We have all grown old together, the dreamer and the dreamed. Step forward now, and within the framework of the novel as it was, dare to tell me some new things about your most secret thoughts, both frightening and beautiful.
“One of my characters stepped forward and spoke. I listened and wrote.”
Guy Montag, hero of F. 451, asks Fire Chief Beatty how he became a burner of books. To answer the question Beatty takes Montag to his apartment where Beatty has thousands of books lining the walls of his hidden library.
“But you’re the Chief Burner! You can’t have books on your premises!” cries Montag.
Beatty replies, “It’s not owning the books that’s a crime Montag. It’s reading them!”
Montag, in shock, awaits Beatty’s explanation.
“Don’t you see the beauty, Montag? I never read them. Not one book, not one chapter, not one page, not one paragraph. I do play with ironies, don’t I? To have thousands of books and never crack one, to turn your back on the lot and say: No. It’s like having a house full of beautiful women and, smiling, not touching . . . one. So, you see, I’m not a criminal at all. If you ever catch me reading one, yes, then turn me in! But this place is a pure as a twelve-year-old virgin girl’s white-cream summer night bedroom. These books die on the shelves. Why? Because I say so. I do not give them sustenance, no hope with hand or eye or tongue. They are no better than dust.”
Montag protests. “I don’t see how you can’t be—”
“Tempted?” cries the Fire Chief. “Oh, that was long ago. The apple is eaten and gone. The snake has returned to its tree. The garden has grown to weed and rust.”
“Once—“Montag hesitates, then continues, “Once you must have loved books very much.”
“Touché!” the Fire Chief responds. “Below the belt. On the chin. Through the heart. Ripping the gut. Oh, look at me, Montag. The man who loved books, no, the boy who was wild for them, insane for them, who climbed the stacks like a chimpanzee gone made for them.
“I ate them like salad, books were my sandwich for lunch, my tiffin and dinner and midnight munch. I tore out pages, ate them with salt, doused them with relish, gnawed on the bindings, turned the chapters with my tongue! Books by the dozens, the score and the billion. I carried so many home I was hunchbacked for years. Philosophy, art history, politics, social science, the poem, the essay, the grandiose play, you name ‘em. I ate ‘em. And then . . . and then . . .” The Fire Chief’s voice fades.
Montag prompts: “And then?”
“Why, life happened to me.” The Fire Chief shuts his eyes to remember. “Life. The usual. The same. The love that wasn’t quite right, the dream that went sour, the sex that fell apart, the deaths that came swiftly to friends not deserving, the murder of someone or another, the insanity of someone close, the slow death of a mother, the abrupt suicide of a father—a stampede of elephants, an onslaught of disease. And nowhere, nowhere the right book for the right time to stuff in the crumbling wall of the breaking dam to hold back the deluge, give or take a metaphor, lose or find a simile. And by the far edge of thirty, and the near rim of thirty-one, I picked myself up, every bone broken, every centimeter of flesh abraded, bruised, or scarred. I looked in the mirror and found an old man lost behind the frightened face of a young man, saw a hatred there for everything and anything, you name, I’d damn it, and opened the pages of my fine library books and found what, what what!?”
Montag guesses. “The pages were empty?”
“Bull’s eye! Blank! Oh, the words were there, allright, but they ran over my eyes like hot oil, signifying nothings. Offering no help, no solace, no peace, no harbor, no true love, no bed, no light.”
Montag thinks back: “Thirty years ago . . . the final library burnings . . .”
“On target,” Beatty nods. “And having no job, and being a failed Romantic, or whatever in hell, I put in for Fireman First Class. First up the steps, first into the library, first in the burning furnace heart of his ever-blazing countrymen, douse me with kerosene, hand me my torch!”
Fair Use: Regarding the purpose and character of quoting this passage, I state that under the tenets of Fair Use, this selection of Mr. Bradbury’s work is intended solely for purposes of commentary and reflection and is not an infringement of copyright. No monetary benefit is sought or desired, nor harm intended to the commercial value of this work.