When I was 8 years old, my father took off. He was a damaged, selfish man, but he had good taste in literature. He left a treasure in our basement, a box of science fiction and fantasy including Ray Bradbury's masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451.
Reading this extraordinary novel in the dark basement, where my brother raised mice and rats to sell to pet stores, I was completely enthralled. Bradbury's world was set sometime in the future, in a society where books were so threatening and dangerous, they were burned. And firemen were there not to save, but to destroy. In Bradbury's repressive society, there were also rebels, people willing to give their lives for books, to risk everything and "become" a book, memorizing it so that it could live on even if it was destroyed.
Bradbury's fictional world is a place of great heart and wisdom, a universe of huge imagination where nothing is off-limits. His work defies classification — it's not science fiction or fantasy or realism, but it has elements of all three. Like the best fairy tales, his stories take you to a place of Once Upon A Time where anything can and does happen.
Bradbury's unique style fused the political, the real and the magical. When I myself was becoming a writer, this daring combination allowed me to consider creating alternative realities in fiction. But it was many years later, in 2001, that Fahrenheit 451 actually rescued me. After 9/11, I experienced serious writer's block. Like so many, I had lost faith in the future. If our world was so perilous, if buildings could tumble and planes fall from the sky, what was the point of writing?
I have always believed that the books of youth stay with us in a unique way. The fairy tales, nursery rhymes and novels we read when we're young become part of our DNA. Perhaps that is why I was led back to Fahrenheit 451 after 9/11. It was a brilliant remedy for restoring my faith. In returning to Bradbury territory, I was reminded of just how important books are. Stories are our personal history. In the end, they're all we have. Soon after, I began writing my own post-apocalyptic fairy tale — the tale of a girl who loses everything, yet comes back to life when she begins to tell her own story, just as I had.
I owe Ray Bradbury a huge debt, one that can never be repaid. A few years ago, I was in Los Angeles, where a librarian told me that Bradbury had done more for the L.A. public library than any other author. I wasn't surprised. When I was given his phone number, I hesitantly called, shy to meet my hero. But Bradbury was exactly as I had imagined him to be: gracious and wise. He gave me another gift when we spoke — the chance to thank him. I could let him know that he had changed this reader and writer's life.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.