Some time last year, I began to suspect Fahrenheit 451 was a terrible book. I had read it sometime in high school, maybe in middle school, so I wasn't quite sure. I was fairly confident in a few memories: that it was about a fireman whose job was to burn books, and that he ended up with a bunch of book-memorizing hobos. And actually, I don't remember it being an especially bad book, beyond the unpleasantness associated with anything one is forced to read for an English class. Yet I had suspicions all the same.
I decided to re-read it over winter break, and it was more or less as I feared. The main thing Bradbury does in it is parade out a string of characters--an odd young girl, a retired English teacher, a chief of book-burners--to spout Bradbury's half-baked speculation about the role of books in society. There isn't even much concern for decent characterization. Why does the villain of the story turn out to make such a good spokesperson for Bradbury's views? The reader isn't given the slightest clue. Orwell, at least, put some effort into making his representative villain of 1984 (O'Brian) plausibly intoxicated with power, so he could say some of the things Orwell would have said about totalitarianism while still thinking totalitarianism a good thing. And while the preachy sections of 1984 are impossible to ignore, Orwell invests time in simply describing his dystopia in a way Bradbury doesn't. These observations have a high degree of credibility, as they were based on Orwell's own first-hand encounter with the Soviet-backed faction on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War.
Fahrenheit 451 is often described as a novel about censorship, it is plainly nothing fo the sort. The book burners aren't out to to crush books they dislike, rather, they're just out burning books. "Books are good, so let's make some paper villains who go around burning them," seems to have been Bradbury's logic. I suspect few people--perhaps save some fans of classic science fiction drawn in by Bradbury's better stuff--would even be aware of such a book, if not for the fact that it flatters English teachers. For this reason a generation of high school students have been forced to read it.
There we come to the great irony of Fahrenheit 451: it was intended to paint books in a good light, but if it is presented to a young student as a paradigm example of literature, he is likely to conclude that books have nothing to offer but flattery for authority figures and propagandizing on their own behalf. This is what philosophers call having a biased sample, but the student would not be at fault for this biasing, and could not entirely be blamed for going off to spend his free time watching Fox News and TV crime dramas.