Book-burning, history, memory and literacy: An Appreciation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a 1984 co-winner of the Prometheus Hall of Fame

To make clear why each Prometheus winner deserves recognition as notable pro-freedom and/or anti-authoritarian and dystopian sf/fantasy, the Libertarian Futurist Society has published Appreciations of all award-winners. Here is our Appreciation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a 1984 Prometheus Hall of Fame co-winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By Michael Grossberg

One of the most widely admired classics of science fiction is Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury’s poignant 1953 novel makes an eloquent case (both libertarian and classical liberal) against censorship and book-burning as a blow not only to basic individual rights but as a devastating wound to history, memory and civilization itself.

Bradbury’s best-known novel offers an exemplary cautionary fable about an illiberal future society in which books are outlawed and burned to destroy them and any remnant of literacy, memory, deep culture and independent thinking.

Those who still love and read books become criminals, hunted down by “firemen” and at high risk of having their homes invaded, their books and houses burned and their lives destroyed by the omnipresent State.

The title refers to the temperature at which books burn – and the book itself not coincidentally was written not that many years after the end of World War II and its murderous horrors. That era, defined by various forms of authoritarian collectivism, was an era of book-burning in Germany and elsewhere, and the memories of Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) regime were still all too fresh in the memories of Bradbury and the readers who made his novel a 1950s bestseller.

The government “firemen” in the book might be burning paper and books as a central part of their job – rather than the noble task of real-life firemen to put out dangerous fires in buildings and forests – but, in actuality, the fireman are enforcing the government’s conscious campaign to control the people by destroying their shared history of ideas, culture, memories and anything that might threaten the government’s intrusive rule.

The human condition is complex, with many passively accepting some degree of tyranny but with many also tending toward rebellion in a desire for liberty. Thus, in Bradbury’s mixed future scenario, while many seem passively happy and don’t object to censorship and the destruction of books, others react with principled rebellion or merely an unquenchable love of literature that prompts them to risk their lives and strive to preserve books, along with their words and ideas.

Bradbury also envisions the dictatorship endorsing a conformist and unthinking culture dominated by television and empty unintellectual discourse and entertainment. Implicitly, his history-informed future scenario represents an imagined higher-tech variant of the old Roman “bread and circuses” that the authorities use to manipulate and pacify the population to prevent them from questioning the existing order – or even develop any strong sense of individuality and history with which they could question it.

The central character, who develops into an icon of libertarian dissent and rebellious individualism, is a fireman who begins to question his role in censoring literature, ultimately discovering the value of knowledge, however illicit, and quitting his job to join forces with an underground remnant of book-lovers.

Originally inspired by the McCarthy era of the early 1950s and Bradbury’s concerns then about book-burning and other less explicit forms of censorship, the novel has become over the decades a beloved civil-libertarian classic embraced by generations across the political spectrum.

Even today, in the 21stcentury, when so many people don’t read books and those who do tend to read them as ebooks on their smartphones, Kindles and computers, Bradbury’s novel sadly remains all too relevant – and sadly is likely to remain relevant long after every book has been digitized and those made of paper and cloth relegated to dusty libraries or historical archives.

Note: Bradbury (1920-2012), a great humanist and classical liberal, understood the crucial value of the Bill of Rights as a check against majoritarian government.

Ray Bradbury in 1975 (Creative Commons license)

Bradbury, a featured speaker at the libertarian Future of Freedom conference in the early 1980s in southern California, also explored themes of liberty, individualism, independent thinking and non-conformity, in other of his many stories, such as “The Pedestrian,” “Usher II,” portions of The Martian Chronicles, and elsewhere.



• Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

• Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans .
Libertarian futurists believe culture is as vital as politics (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive in the longer run) in spreading positive visions of the future and achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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