"Montag, take my word for it, I've had to read a few in my time, to know what I was about, and the books say nothing! Nothing you can teach or believe. They're about non-existent people, figments of imagination, if they're fiction. And if they're non-fiction, it's worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another's gullet. All of them running about, putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun. You come away lost." (1.629)
Mildred uses the same defense against books, claiming that they are not "real." What are the criteria, in the world of Fahrenheit 451, for what is real and what is not?
"Come on, woman!"
The woman knelt among the books, touching the drenched leather and cardboard, reading the gilt titles with her fingers while her eyes accused Montag.
"You can't ever have my books," she said. (1.346-8)
This woman recognizes what Montag will not realize for some time – the value of books is not physical and doesn’t lie in the tangible pages. That’s why, although they burn this woman’s books, they never really take them from her.
"You weren't there, you didn't see," he said. "There must be something in books, things we can't imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don't stay for nothing." (1.546)
Notice how it takes a person to get Montag’s attention. People like this woman, Clarisse, Faber, and eventually Granger get him to notice the substance behind literature.
"It's not just the woman that died," said Montag. "Last night I thought about all the kerosene I've used in the past ten years. And I thought about books. And for the first time I realized that a man was behind each one of the books. A man had to think them up. A man had to take a long time to put them down on paper. And I'd never even thought that thought before." He got out of bed.
"It took some man a lifetime maybe to put some of his thoughts down, looking around at the world and life, and then I came along in two minutes and boom! it's all over."(1.556-7)
All his life Montag has known only destruction, only one half of the cycle. Destruction has no meaning for him until he begins to recognize the work he is undoing, the construction half of the cosmic routine.
How inconvenient! Always before it had been like snuffing a candle. The police went first and adhesive-taped the victim's mouth and bandaged him off into their glittering beetle cars, so when you arrived you found an empty house. You weren't hurting anyone, you were hurting only things! And since things really couldn't be hurt, since things felt nothing, and things don't scream or whimper, as this woman might begin to scream and cry out, there was nothing to tease your conscience later. You were simply cleaning up. Janitorial work, essentially. Everything to its proper place. Quick with the kerosene! Who's got a match! (1.332)
Guy will soon prove his misconception when he comes to the realization that every book represents the man who wrote it. At the end of the novel, he’ll realize that books also represent those who read and learn from them.
Part Two: The Sieve and the Sand
"I've heard rumours; the world is starving, but we're well-fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we're hated so much? I've heard the rumours about hate, too, once in a long while, over the years. Do you know why? I don't, that's sure! Maybe the books can get us half out of the cave. They just might stop us from making the same damn insane mistakes!" (2.27)
It’s possible this is a reference to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which we’re all ignorant and, you know, stuck in cave together. The enlightened man is the man who removes his shackles and walks out of the cave into the real world. The idea here is that books are what enable us to do so.
Mildred kicked at a book. "Books aren't people. You read and I look around, but there isn't anybody!" (2.20)
This is what the rebels in the woods disprove at the end of the novel.
"So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless." (2.129-30)
It is this desire for comfort that has allowed the government to rule the way that it does. Very little enforcement is needed, as the citizens are essentially doped up by their own shallow happiness. Books threaten this happiness by reminding the citizens what the rest of the world is like.
Mrs. Bowles stood up and glared at Montag. "You see? I knew it, that's what I wanted to prove! I knew it would happen! I've always said, poetry and tears, poetry and suicide and crying and awful feelings, poetry and sickness; all that mush! Now I've had it proved to me. You're nasty, Mr. Montag, you're nasty!" (2.338)
Montag has done Mrs. Bowles a favor in getting her to feel something, anything, even if it’s negative. Remember when he earlier told Mildred that she had never really been bothered by anything? Exactly; he’s dragged this woman out of the emotionless sterility of her world.
"What traitors books can be! You think they’re backing you up, and then they turn on you. Others can use them, too, and there you are, lost in the middle of the moor, in a great welter of nouns and verbs and adjectives." (2.386)
Beatty misses the point. The reason books are valuable is because they are contradictory, conflicted, and confusing. It means that the reader can – or has to – think for himself, as Montag so desperately wants to himself.