My first encounter with Ray Bradbury was Farenheit 451. It was part of my ninth grade English curriculum. At the time, I fell in love with Bradbury’s writing style, but I came away with a fairly superficial understanding of the text (it wasn’t until my twenties, when I began to contemplate just how many hours I spent in front of a screen each day, that the novel became much more than an anti-censorship story). However, I was hooked enough to read more.
The summer between ninth and tenth grades, I read The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine. I adored both, but it was Dandelion Wine that made me want to be a writer. In fact, the second I finished it, I put down the book, opened my journal, and wrote several pages about my future career. (Of course, it hasn’t gone the way I envisioned it when I was fifteen; for example, I didn’t see myself as more focused on poetry than on fiction. But I’m not complaining.)
Part of me wishes I still had that old notebook, so I could go back and read the words I wrote on the day I realized my true commitment to writing. However, when I moved to Austin in 2008, I threw out all of my old notebooks, with the exception of two that I kept because the books themselves were too pretty to go in the trash. At the time, I wasn’t writing much, but I planned to start again after the move. I’d decided that everything I’d written between ages twelve and twenty-four was no longer serving me. I couldn’t rely on my juvenilia and old ideas. Plus, dragging all of those notebooks across state lines, and from apartment to apartment, was literally going to weigh me down. It was time to be rid of everything. So I got rid of the notebooks and emptied the hard drive, and started fresh. (And I might do it again in my thirties.)
The purge of my old writing was in part inspired by Dandelion Wine. Back when I was fifteen, I was haunted by the character of Mrs. Bentley, an elderly woman whose house is packed full of souvenirs of her youth: record albums, theatre programs, hair combs, photographs. The neighborhood children, however, refuse to believe that she was once young, or that she was ever “Helen” rather than “Mrs. Bentley.” I know the denial of Mrs. Bentley’s identity is the true heartbreak of that chapter. But for me, the horror was found in the image of an old woman weighed down by her past. That image constantly comes back to me. So when it came time to move, I took a cue from Mrs. Bentley and got rid of my work, let go of what was no longer serving me. So I don’t have that old entry to look back on, but I do remember writing it. And the fact that I don’t have it is because of the mark Bradbury left on my life.
But back to Farenheit 451. A few weeks ago, on a hike, my friend asked me what I would do at the onset of the apocalypse. Rather than suggest something practical (I am probably doomed at the end of the world), I said I’d immediately decide which five books I’d take with me. (Books are heavy. I would only allow five. Except poetry volumes are slim, so perhaps I could double up on a few of those and it wouldn’t be too heavy.) But the next day, I remembered the closing of Fahrenheit, where it is revealed that people have been charged with committing books to memory, as that is the only way to preserve them. Which made me wonder: in the event of the apocalypse, which book would I commit to memory?
It’s a hard choice, and ironically, I don’t have a Bradbury book as one of the finalists — but I imagine that in the apocalypse, there will be no shortage of volunteers who want to take on his work. Meanwhile, I linger undecided between four books: Orlando by Virginia Woolf, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Sula by Toni Morrison, and Montgomery’s Children by Richard Perry. These are four books that I constantly recommend to people, all the time, no matter who they are. Orlando is delightfully feminist, modernist, and speculative. Their Eyes Were Watching God is — well, I can’t explain why I love it without spoiling at the end. Sula is my favorite of Morrison’s novels, and is a beautiful discussion on the complexities of friendship. Montgomery’s Children is a beautiful meditation on race and memory, and to top it off, it’s out of print (though I suppose everything will be out of print in the apocalypse).
By nature, I’m indecisive. So I think that, in the event of the apocalypse, I will have to make room in my mind for all four. And that’s all there really is to it.
So thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for helping me let go of the past before I became old. And thank you for making me love books so much that I have tasked myself with the difficulty of being the steward of four of them in the event that the world collapses.