I always wondered why every English teacher except my own made this required reading for their classes. Yesterday I read the novel in its entirety -- it's easy to do, really -- and now I know why. This story is, in part, Ray Bradbury's philosophy of why books are essential to civilized society and why their gradual replacement by television and continual rewriting by politically correct editors is a Bad Thing. To a bibliophile like myself, he hits squarely home.
The novel is, in a word, about censorship. But it's not the kind most people are used to thinking of, the kind where the government tells the newspapers what to publish. This, instead, is the kind of censorship society inflicts upon its own, the demand by individuals that writing should be democratic, that writers shouldn't be allowed to offend anyone by what they write. (The title itself describes the temperature at which paper, or a book, burns.) This novel was composed long before the words "political correctness" were ever coined, but it may as well be the comprehensive definition of it.
Without saying it too loudly, Bradbury nails TV to the wall as the murderer of free thinking. The problem isn't television itself, but rather the market television demands. Television demands that its viewers completely immerse themselves in what's being watched -- there's no chance to stop and put a bookmark into the show and think about what's being said. TV forces you to take its message in both eyes and ears and thrusts its message down your throat.
TV programming isn't local, it's national and global, and consequently is designed for mass marketing consumption. It's filled with quick messages and abbreviated ideas because that's all people have time for. And because its message is so widely received, TV isn't allowed to offend the majority, and increasingly it's denied the opportunity to offend any sort of minority either.
Add all of these components together, and you have a form of entertainment that, by its very nature, is the antithesis of free thought, of considered opinion, of knowledge itself. How can anyone be expected to learn anything from it? Television is about stimulus and response, about entertainment and sensory arousal, not about facts and information. Even the daily news has to be cut and diced to keep the words as short as possible so that Joe Viewer can understand what's being said.
Books aren't the salvation of humanity; Bradbury says that directly. But they're a way of preserving thoughts, ideas, and thusly truth in a way that video signals in the airwaves never can. So naturally, in order for our society to continue to grow as it has been, they must be destroyed. After all, doesn't everyone have the right not to be offended?