What’s in a number? Catch 22 and Fahrenheit 451.

Two brilliant novels, one set in the past and the other in the future, dealing with terrible times that humanity chooses to inflict on itself.

You’re almost certainly familiar with the question ‘What’s the catch?’ You know, when something seems too good to be true. In its title, the satirical war novel ‘Catch 22’ takes this idea further to «a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule» – so says Merriam Webster, my favourite dictionary. In other words, there’s no escape; you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. You can’t get your dream job as a lion tamer without experience and you can’t get experience as a lion tamer unless you work as one. Catch 22! If you’ve read the novel, you’ll now what protagonist Yossarian’s personal ‘catch 22’ is, and if you haven’t it’s not for me to tell you.

The absurdity of war is obviously what the novel nails so well. There’s an absolutely hilarious dialogue I’ve always loved. I’m paraphrasing but it’s more or less like this:

-«I didn’t say that.»

-«When didn’t you say that?»

-«Last night.»

-«Is that the only time you didn’t say that?»

-«No, I always didn’t say that».

In 1970, when protests in the USA against the war in Vietnam were at their height, a film version of the novel was released. It was directed by Mike Nichols, whose previous film – ‘The Graduate’ – is a personal favourite of mine and, undoubtedly, yours too.

So now to a dystopian future, a post-literature future, when books, and the knowledge they share, have become illegal. Our protagonist in ‘Fahrenheit 451 is Montag and Montag is a fireman. But while a fireman’s job used to be putting out fires, now it is to burn books.

Before going any further, let’s just have a little phrasal verb moment. Fans of this will know that ‘out’ may indicate something disappearing or similar. If you put out a fire, you’re extinguishing it and if you blow out the candles on your birthday cake, you’re doing the same thing. If you pass out, you’ve lost consciousness and if you fall out with someone, then the friendship or relationship is gone. If, like me, you’re old school and prefer writing with a pen on paper, then you’ll be crossing out (i.e. putting a line through) what you previously wrote.

That was fun, wasn’t it? Now let’s get back to Ray Bradbury’s outstanding novel. The number is significant here because fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which book paper burns. That’s to say it’s the temperature that book paper burns at. ‘What’s the difference?’ you may be wondering. Or ‘Can we just talk about this book?’ you may be thinking. Fans of prepositions and relative clauses will know you’re most likely to find the former at the end of the sentence or question whereas putting them before a relative pronoun will make what you’re saying more formal.

So the book, which we can finally return to (or ‘to which we can finally return’) has this totally amazing ending. I wish we could talk about it here but, of course, I don’t want to ruin it for anyone.

In 1966 Francois Truffaut chose Fahrenheit 451 to be his first English language film. It’s brilliant, naturally.

I’d say the themes of these books and their film versions are as relevant now as when they were written or made as well as the past and future times they’re set in.

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