In Ray Bradbury’s 1953 classic Fahrenheit 451, Captain Beatty is indeed a literate and well-educated man. He has clearly read, and read widely. Yet, he is completely committed to his mission of ferreting out and burning every book his department can find. The seminal passages in Fahrenheit 451 occur in the scene in which Captain Beatty visits Montag at the latter’s home. It is a routine managerial practice – that of checking up on firemen who call in sick, usually a sign of increasing mental exhaustion and confusion regarding the nature of the mission – but provides an opportunity for a heart-to-heart discussion of that mission and how it evolved.
Insights into Captain Beatty’s personality and history come with surprising lucidity, as in this surprising statement:
"`We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out,"' said Beatty. Stoneman glanced over at the Captain, as did Montag, startled. Beatty rubbed his chin. "A man named Latimer said that to a man named Nicholas Ridley, as they were being burnt alive at Oxford, for heresy, on October 16, 1555." Montag and Stoneman went back to looking at the street as it moved under the engine wheels. "I'm full of bits and pieces," said Beatty. "Most fire captains have to be.”
Note the final comment: “Most fire captains have to be.” Beatty is enlightening Montag as to the requirements of the job of supervision in a task with an apparent history of creating the occasional doubter regarding the appropriateness of book-burning. The captains understand that, at some point, a fireman will begin to question the mission, and his supervisor must be prepared to explain the history behind the government-sanctioned burning of libraries.
The question of why books are burned is more abstract, and a great deal more of an indictment of civilization on the part of Bradbury. During his lecture to Montag on why book-burning became official government policy, he emphasizes what one could today refer to as the “dumbing-down” of society – brevity has replaced prose and context; readers are demanding instant gratification and lack the discipline and tenacity needed to actually read an entire book. Ideas are boiled down and diversity is weeded out. Beatty describes the evolution:
“You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally 'bright,' did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other. . . So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. . . when houses were finally fireproofed completely, all over the world . . . there was no longer need of firemen for the old purposes. They were given the new job, as custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior; official censors, judges, and executors.”
Books are burned because they contain information the accumulated knowledge from which creates diversity, which, to the government, creates adversity.