In Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, what does Faber mean when he says, "Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord"?
Guy Montag goes to Faber for advice about books. He wonders if books have something that he feels is missing in life. If books do contain something that would make life more meaningful for everyone, Montag would be willing to fight for that. Unfortunately, Faber tells Montag that what he is searching for isn't necessarily in books. Besides that, bringing back books isn't the answer for society, either. This is when Faber says the following:
"Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord. You firemen provide a circus now and then at which buildings are set off as crowds gather for the pretty blaze . . ." (87).
With this reminder, Faber is saying that the firemen are a technicality that the government uses to perpetuate illiteracy in their society. The government doesn't have to do much to keep books at bay because most people don't have the desire to read anyway. Faber also informs Montag that he remembers when newspapers became obsolete forty years ago. Society became illiterate and uneducated without any help from government oppression. Faber recalls the following:
"I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them. And then the Government, seeing how advantageous it was to have people reading only about passionate lips and the fist in the stomach, circled the situation with your fire-eaters" (89).
By saying this, Faber recounts the fact that the government doesn't need to do much to keep people illiterate. The firemen keep burning houses in order to make examples of people who hoard books, but other than scaring those who are book lovers, the firemen are not really needed to stop the majority of individuals from reading. Why? Faber says it is because "People are having fun" (87). Consequently, people would rather have a good time than become more educated and literate; therefore, the firemen aren't as needed as they seem to be.
Through this comment, Faber is drawing an important conclusion about the nature of society. He suggests that people turned their backs on book-reading in favour of popular forms of entertainment. They did this, Faber argues, because they did not like the content of books, as he comments:
They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.
In other words, books represent every aspect of life; they encourage thought and reflection and are not designed with the sole purpose of making people happy. As such, people came to fear and hate them.
In addition, by suggesting that firemen are "rarely necessary," Faber is alluding to the fact that few people like himself exist anymore, as he comments:
So few want to be rebels anymore. And out of those few, most, like myself, scare easily.
For Faber, the vast majority of people are happy with the current situation: they do not want to read books and absorb the information inside. They are happy with the status quo and have no desire to change it. Faber and Montag are, therefore, social outsiders who face a cultural battle if they are ever to reintroduce book-reading to their society.
Faber means that the job of the firemen, to destroy books when they are found, is becoming less and less necessary because not many people read books anymore. The society in the story has become so busy in other, less educational pursuits, that even if there were books around, they probably wouldn't read. Therefore, there aren't many books that need to be destroyed as fewer and fewer people bother to read. This was one of the strong messages Bradbury was trying to send with the story; that if people become obsessed with self-indulgent activities, become concerned with political correctness to the point of blandness, become more concerned with entertainment than with enlightenment, then books will naturally become obsolete. He was warning the reader to avoid allowing this to happen.