I’ve had a busy weekend. Thankfully not the kind of busy where you find yourself running errands and hurrying to complete a number of menial tasks in order to prevent some terrible consequence from playing out. Rather, my weekend was filled—nearly to overflowing—with pleasantries and celebration. I’m turning 30 in a few days.
On Friday, I had a some time between obligations, so I decided I would pull something from my bookshelf and read for a bit. I labored over the decision, but then I reached for my old copy of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I’m a high school English teacher, so I inevitably get the “what is your favorite book?” question. Fahrenheit 451 is always my answer.
I read the book for the first (and last) time when I was 15-years-old. By that point in my life, I hadn’t really considered that a book could leave such an impression on me. Fahrenheit 451 single-handedly reinvigorated a lost love of reading that had been extinguished by years of assigned texts that were as dry as ashes (let’s count the number of fire-related puns I can squeeze into this post). There is little doubt in my mind that I would never have become an English teacher if I hadn’t read that book.
My copy looks like I stole it from the burn pile just in time.
Over the course of the weekend, I stole an hour here and there to hide and read the story of Guy Montag’s growing disillusionment with the society that he has worked to preserve. On the eve of my passage into a new decade, I find that the book speaks to me quite differently than when I was 15.
Half of my lifetime ago, Fahrenheit 451 was a story of rebellion against an oppressive society. Though the broad-in-scope cautionary tale remains much the same, the story has become so much more personal to me. I’m the same age as Guy Montag now, and his humanity has become forefront within the narrative. His story is not one of heroism. It is an identity crisis, at the end of which lies not the profound epiphany one might expect… but rather a humble acceptance of obscurity.
As a teenager, the concept of “society” seemed distant and nebulous. I wanted do something big, but that notion was equally as distant and nebulous. I was more like Montag than I realized: but I was the naive and idealistic (and misguided) Montag. Now, I am a member of society, and Fahrenheit is less about sparking the fires of widespread change and more about discovering one’s role in world. Not until now have I grasped the importance of the words of the outcast Granger:
“The most important single thing we had to pound into ourselves is that we were not important, we mustn’t be pendants; we were not to feel superior to anyone else in the world. We’re nothing more than dust jackets for books, of no significance otherwise” (153).
I had always thought that Fahrenheit 451 became much less interesting after Montag’s climactic escape. However, it is here with Granger that he learns one of the most important—and most immediate—lessons that the book has to teach us. Lasting change isn’t a glorious revolution; it cannot be achieved with a grand gesture, especially within a culture that is so easily distracted. Revolution is using our gifts to serve our community. We make the most difference when we work together to build a flourishing society.
Consider this. The book doesn’t offer up the satisfying ending that the reader will inevitably crave. There is no single moment in which victory is achieved because working toward a better tomorrow is not a task that can be completed. It is an ongoing effort that is handed from one person to the next.
For me, this means that I must continue to be the best educator I can, doing my part to change the world on a very small scale. I wonder what Fahrenheit 451 will mean to me when I’m 45.