“I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here,” says Ray Bradbury above, in a lengthy interview with the The Big Read project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Breaking the ice with this stock phrase, Bradbury--author of Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, and several dozen more fantasy and sci-fi novels and short story collections (and some truly chilling horror)--begins to talk about… Love. Specifically a love of books. “Love,” he says, “is at the center of your life. The things that you do should be things that you love, and the things that you love, should be things that you do.” That’s what books teach us, he says, and it becomes his mantra.
Bradbury, who passed away in June, was certainly an early inspiration for me, and several million other bookish kids whose warmest memories involve discovering some strange, life-altering book on the shelf of a library. As he recounts his childhood experiences with books, he’s such an enthusiastic booster for public libraries that you may find yourself writing a check to your local branch in the first ten minutes of his talk. And it’s easy to see why his most famous novel sprang from what must have been a very pressing fear of the loss of books. Bradbury was largely self-taught. Unable to afford college, he pursued his fierce ambition to become a writer immediately out of high school and published his first short story, “Hollerbochen’s Dilemma,” at the age of nineteen. As he says above, he became a writer because, “I discovered that I was alive.” But I’m not doing it justice. You have to watch him tell it to really feel the thrill of this epiphany.
The Big Read’s mission is to create a “Nation of Readers,” and to do so, it posts free audio guides for classics such as Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. They also feature video interviews with other authors, like Amy Tan, Ernest J. Gaines, and Tobias Wolff. Each of the interviews is fantastic, and the readers’ guides are superb as well. Bradbury’s, for example, narrated by poet and author Dana Gioia, also features sci-fi giants Orson Scott Card and Ursula K. Le Guin, as well as several other writers who were inspired by his work.
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.