Book Review: Books I Read for English Class, part 2

When I started this blog in April I did a mass review of all the books I’d read in my freshman English class up until then. The school year is almost over, so I decided I should review the last two books I read: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Ayn Rand’s Anthem.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury:

I still can’t decide what I thought of this book. I enjoyed reading it, as much as I ever do when I have to annotate a book, but the more I thought about it after I read it, the more problems I had with it.

The plot, which feels exciting while you’re reading it, has a very simple progression. The main character’s, Montag’s, character arc is predictable in a frustratingly point-A-to-point-B way. The side characters–Clarisse, Faber, and the book men–though interesting in the moment, have no character arc at all, only appearing to influence Montag, then disappearing, to be replaced. It’s well-written, but a little heavy on metaphors for my personal taste (thought that might just be the overwhelmed and sleep-deprived student talking, trying to annotate at 11:00 pm talking).

Most of my problems with the novel come down to it’s length. It is about 50,000 words, about half the length of today’s YA novels (80,000-100,000 words). Which means it is short, something I loved as a student, but which eventually drove me to dislike the book.

Fahrenheit 451 is clearly a plot based book, focused on sending a message about the dangers of technology/over-stimulation/basically the world we live in. And on that note, it succeeds. However, I prefer character-driven books. I want to fall in love with not just the protagonist, but every person he meets. I want to be amazed by how they change, surprised by their actions, blown away when I compare them on the first page with them on the last page. Ray Bradbury’s novel was missing this for me. It simply wasn’t long enough for Montag to have a complicated arc, or for the backup characters to be anything more than cardboard cutouts of messages, like bad movie props. I understand why the book is so popular, but I wanted more from it, especially because it was the one book I actually wanted to read going into the school year.

 

Anthem by Ayn Rand:

Literally every person I’ve told we read this book says something along the line of, “They’re making you read Ayn Rand?!”

Yep.

I didn’t like this book, though I’m not sure if it is for the classic, anti-Ayn-Rand reasons of most people who hated it.

As in the case of Fahrenheit 451, this book was heavily message based and way too short for characters or plot to develop.

I don’t think anyone can argue Anthem was written for a plot or character development reason. It was written to spread an anti-collectivist message during the rise of communism in Eastern Europe. Ayn Rand even explains that the title of the book is drawn from her feeling that it was an anthem to the Objectivism movement. I can respect that she looked to a literary device to spread opinions she clearly held strongly.

But couldn’t she have done it better? Instead of the heavy-handed slapping me in the face with your message, couldn’t she have subtly woven the message into the plot and the characters. It didn’t even have to be that subtle. It just would have helped if there was any plot.

Nothing about the novel makes sense. The modern world has collapsed and a totalitarian, collectivist government has taken over. There is no technology past candles and glass, and people are back to thinking that the world is flat. No one explores the Uncharted Forest. It is a society completely stripped of humanity.

Sure, that’s the point. But if you examine the book closely (again with the annotating), you break through a sort of backwards 4th wall, and you can see Ayn Rand trying to send messages be separate from the logic of her world.

For example, the character names: Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000. As we discussed in class, this is a gorgeous allusion to American values and the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”). But why would a totalitarian government hell-bent on destroying the past weave these allusions in. Equality’s name makes sense, but Liberty? The society is not based on freedom, but full obedience to the Councils. This is Ayn Rand talking, not caring about her plot, only the message.

Then some things just aren’t logical. There’s the prison that doesn’t have working locks on the doors or guards because no one would dare to escape. But presumably if people disobeyed to get into jail, they’d to it again to get out. The society reinvented candles and managed to call them by the exact same name. Equality stumbles upon electricity (again with the NO TECHNOLOGY ANYWHERE) and invents the light bulb in a few weeks. Only Scholars are allowed to read but everyone can. Wouldn’t a totalitarian government destroying independent thought keep people from reading in the most basic way possible? (However, this skill is useful when Equality finds books and learns of the past…so we can understand why Ayn Rand couldn’t keep her populace illiterate.)

And for a novel written solely for spreading messages throughout the world, it is stupidly misogynistic. (*Spoilers, though predictable*) Liberty falls in love with Equality, and there’s a quote that goes something like “And her eyes which defied the world looked at me as if they would do anything I asked” (sorry for the paraphrase, but you get the gist). Liberty, who starts out as a refreshingly rebellious female figure, turns complacent and practically worships Equality. Ayn Rand’s message that individual thought is the most important value apparently only applies to cocky, power-hungry males who consider themselves gods.

I’m fine with authors using their books to say things about the world. (Read Laini Taylor’s Smoke and Bone series and Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens.) But I won’t respect your message if the book doesn’t make sense and if it’s clear you thought you could get away with a half-assed plot because your themes are just so important.

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