Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I once heard an anecdote about a famous film critic who said that he wasn’t going to watch “The African Queen” until he was on his deathbed, because he wanted to save the best for last. Maybe that’s why I, a fan of classic literature and American literature both, have waited so long to read Fahrenheit 451. Of course, like so many people, my plans were foiled by a child, namely my step-son who wanted help with his 8th grade summer reading, and who could say no to that? Looking around the site you can see that I adore Ray Bradbury, so much so that I would venture to say that, were I ever able to get a PhD., I might just specialize in his works. I think he’s an overlooked genius, but at least, I thought, at least students read Fahrenheit 451. Then I read the novel … and it’s not very good. Also, everything after this point is spoilers, just FYI.

Compared to Bradbury’s corpus, Fahrenheit 451 should have been a footnote; flat characters, been-done plot (it’s basically Anthem), not-helpful observations about how technology is rotting minds. It’s almost the opposite of some of his works, specifically The Martian Chronicles collection, wherein machines are personified sympathetically. In Fahrenheit 451 it’s just “technology bad, people complacent” and the characters … I need to organize my thoughts because I cannot just ramble about my disappointment. All I’m saying is that, if that anecdote is true, I really hope that critic liked “The African Queen” because, for me, not liking Fahrenheit 451 was quite the bummer.

The novel opens with Guy Montag being thrilled with his work as a fireman, you know, the book burning kind. Then there’s a lonely walk down a moodily lit street. Enter: a dame. Clarisse McClellan is teenager and unusual, asking Montag all manner of questions as they find themselves walking side by side. This feels like a “meet cute,” where our two polar opposites meet, don’t agree, yet are drawn to each other. Montag is thirty and Clarisse is seventeen, to which my step-son said “eew!” but whatever, I’m much younger than my S.O. and it couldn’t bother me less. So I guess their age difference is supposed to establish them as platonic? Yet he looks for her every day, misses her, she leaves him little quirky manic pixie dream girl presents like acorns, and Montag thinks about her face, “really quite beautiful in memory: astonishing, in fact.” Clarisse asks him why he doesn’t read the books he burns and she asks if he’s happy before running off into the moonlight, she is the character that introduces these huge concepts to Montag … but then she’s unceremoniously killed off. For no reason.

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Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, a Reading Journal

I have the extremely odd habit of saving drafts in the most random places, and so, I just stumbled upon this Clarissa reading journal that I wrote way back in 2007. I have to published it because it’s just so odd (it was, it seem, an assignment for school that I took really seriously), it’s in the same epistolary style, and because I’m so amused that I wrote it an forgot about it again. It seems to function as a sort of diary of my Clarissa reading experience, and if you have ever read the novel, I’m sure you understand why such a step is necessary. I hope you enjoy.

Robert Lovelace preparing to abduct Clarissa Harlowe, by Francis Hayman
Week 1

Letter 1: Miss Pamela Coovert to Self at Future Date
4 September 2007

I’ve read through the Introduction to Clarissa and I can’t help but be a little worried, the Introduction is, theoretically, written by someone very fond of the book, but even their glowing terms can’t seem to mask what appears to be a staggering behemoth of a novel. I have unofficially assigned it tome status, which I like to give books more than 100 pages larger than a nice, round thousand. Apparently, every time Samuel Richardson went to edit it down he – in an act that makes it obvious that he was his own publisher – added to the book. Happily it seems that we are dealing with the first edition, which, it seems, is the smallest version. Also, the Introduction amusingly notes all of the far better known writers to slam the book (and Richardson in general) as time goes by, specifically, S. T. Coleridge. Still, Dr. Runge assures us that we are lucky to be among the few classes of graduate students who will ever get through the authentic version of this book; perhaps my pride would be more awakened at this thought were we reading James Joyce, at least then, at the end of the novel, I’d feel cool.

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The Princess Bride by William Goldman

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

The Princess Bride by William Goldman is one of those novels that I never though that I would read. To start with: I hated the movie. Just as unpopular a move as hating The Never Ending Story movie (which I do), but I could never get into the bland love story and murder of cute, giant rats. Fezzik and Inigo, of course, were always cool. I ended up picking the novel up to read this summer simply because the teacher who had my classroom before me used their Title 1 funds to buy a whole grip of them. Next year in Literature in the Media I am planning a unit on “classic movies (based on novels, read a book, darn it)” and I wanted to try a novel that the kids might actually, you know, like. They loved Harry Potter, but they also refused to read the book (not a huge loss as the movie is surprisingly close, though the book is subtly better). I know I want to teach Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but I needed some more novels. Time to expand my horizons! Enter William Goldman.

The most notable difference between the novel and the movie is that, in the novel, the frame narrative is much more depressing. It starts with the adult Goldman failing to have an affair because he’s so obsessed with getting a copy of The Princess Bride, a real novel in the novel’s meta premise, for his son. Goldman’s wife is frigid, his son is fat, he hates them for sucking, true, but his hating them also makes it a little hard for us to like him. He is supremely likable when he reminisces about his father, an immigrant, reading the book to him as a sick child, and editing it mercilessly. (That’s where Fred Savage and Colombo come in movie-wise.) Amazingly this frame narrative is completely fictional, which is a relief, because it’s a downer.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

It’s been a very long time since I’ve written on here, busy as I was (am) educating the youth of America (ie: trying to make them be quiet for forty-five minutes at a stretch and failing) so it seems fitting that this review would be for a book I first read over half my lifetime ago. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979) is a science fiction humor classic and I was lent the entire five book “trilogy” when I was deeply ill my Junior year in High School. Recently I contemplated teaching it to my Literature in the Media class, but there’s an issue: the book is too smart.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is, in it’s own words, “a wholly remarkable book” that manages to blend the driest British humor with a very large dash of Monty Python. The first book follows Arthur Dent the day his home is destroyed, first by a bulldozer, then by a large spaceship. He ends up homeless in many senses of the word and hitchhiking through space with his friend Ford Prefect, an alien. After the pair escape the Vogons (who bulldozed Earth) they join up with Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Galaxy; and Tricia McMillan aka Trillian, who Arthur once failed to pick up at a fancy dress party. Zaphod has stolen a very lovely space ship, the Heart of Gold, which is equipped with an Infinite Improbability Drive, which pretty much makes the most unlikely thing possible happen. All of this is done with a ton of self-referential tongue-in-cheek humor and I absolutely love it, though my boyfriend kept asking “Is this part supposed to be funny?” and then put it down, for good, after about one chapter.

There’s the rub. You have to find this specific type of humor hilarious to really get into the book, or else you won’t realize that it’s funny at all. It’s the silliness bordering almost on nonsense kind of humor, the They Might Be Giants type of fun (a band who he also doesn’t get). I don’t think my students, even my Seniors who are in an Honors English elective, are capable of really getting into the text because I think almost all of the jokes will go right over their heads. Still, I’m considering assigning it as homework reading next year, in part because my classroom came with a class set of novels so I can assign it with no expense on anyone’s part, aside from emotional, of course.

The other charm of the book is that I love the ideas in it: the Vogons are a race of aliens whose poetry is so bad that one of them was killed by his own intestines to save the universe from hearing it; the Babelfish (an online translation service now) which feeds off people’s brainwaves, poops out being able to understand anything said in any language, so you can (and should) keep one in your ear; that in the book mice are hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings who are experimenting on us to get “the ultimate question” whose answer is 42. These ideas are just so enjoyable to be immersed in that Hitchhikers is one of those books that I just sit back and drift though, delighted.

The ending drops off a bit of a cliff with them suddenly wanting dinner, but Adams had wanted it to be a multi-book story from the beginning. Sadly he died before the sixth and final book was completed, and it was written by someone else. I’m working my was back through the original five books now, so we’ll see how I feel as I go. For now I’m happy to have re-read book one, since it’s always nice when nostalgia holds up to reality.