Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s seminal work of science-fiction about the perils of book burning, is finally available as an e-book. Simon & Schuster released the novel for download on Tuesday. It might surprise you to hear that Bradbury, now 91 and apparently a little further into the future than he would like to be, was previously dead-set against making it available in any form other than traditional paper-and-glue, calling the internet “meaningless” and commenting that e-books “smell like burned fuel.” To get the obvious joke out of the way, given his fear of literary conflagrations, maybe he was just uncomfortable putting his book in something called a Kindle.
When Fahrenheit 451 (Celsius 233, in its European editions) was first published in 1953, it was coming only two decades after the infamous Nazi book burnings and in the midst of America’s own wave of anti-literary fervor courtesy of McCarthyism and general think-of-the-children hysteria. But coming in 2011, this e-book release presents an opportunity to ponder the continuing relevance of the novel in a time when words aren’t quite so flammable. It’s pretty difficult to burn an e-book—unless it’s onto a CD—and a thumbdrive is much easier to smuggle than an armful of texts, so you’d think that Bradbury might be willing to forgo his traditional curmudgeonliness to embrace a technology that would spell the end to the act he deplores. Then again, in many cases, firewalls can be just as effective as fire and, as Amazon’s ironically Orwellian faux pas showed us, readers may not be as in control of their electronic library as they are their bookshelf.
Of course, Fahrenheit 451 is not just about the act of burning books in the same way that Animal Farm isn’t just about animal rights (and wrongs). It’s about all varieties of censorship, something from which digital media are far from immune, and in that way its themes are as pertinent as ever. Maybe in fifty years, an updated version will replace Guy Montag’s bonfires with a simple Select All + Delete.