NEA Big Read
Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451

by Ray Bradbury

You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.

Ray Bradbury selling newspapers on the corner of Olympic and Norton, Los Angeles, c. 1938.

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

Ray Douglas Bradbury was born on August 22, 1920, in Waukegan, Illinois into a family that once included a seventeenth-century Salem woman tried for witchcraft. The Bradbury family drove across the country to Los Angeles in 1934, with young Ray piling out of their jalopy at every stop to plunder the local library in search of L. Frank Baum's Oz books.

In 1936, Bradbury experienced a rite of passage familiar to most science-fiction readers: the realization that he was not alone. At a secondhand bookstore in Hollywood, he discovered a handbill promoting meetings of the "Los Angeles Science Fiction Society." Thrilled, he joined a weekly Thursday-night conclave that would grow to attract such science-fiction legends as Robert A. Heinlein, Leigh Brackett, and future Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

After a rejection notice from the pulp magazine Weird Tales, he sent his short story "Homecoming" to Mademoiselle. There it was spotted by a young editorial assistant named Truman Capote, who rescued the manuscript from the slush pile and helped get it published in the magazine. "Homecoming" won a place in The O. Henry Prize Stories of 1947.

But the most significant event for Bradbury in 1947 was surely the beginning of his long marriage to Marguerite McClure. They had met the previous April in Fowler Brothers Bookstore, where she worked—and where at first she had him pegged for a shoplifter: "Once I figured out that he wasn't stealing books, that was it. I fell for him."

In 1950, Bradbury's second book, The Martian Chronicles, took the form of linked stories about the colonization of the red planet. As always in his writing, technology took a back seat to the human stories.

Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a rental typewriter in the basement of UCLA's Lawrence Clark Powell Library, where he had taken refuge from a small house filled with the distractions of two young children. Ballantine editor Stanley Kauffman, later the longtime film critic for The New Republic magazine, flew out to Los Angeles to go over the manuscript with Bradbury, plying the sweet-toothed perfectionist author with copious doses of ice cream.

The book came out to rapturous reviews. To this day it sells at least 50,000 copies a year and has become a touchstone around the world for readers and writers living under repressive regimes.

Continuing to write during his final years, Bradbury also made public appearances that inspired all ages across the country. At many of those celebrated appearances, he exhorted his fans to "Do what you love and love what you do!" He did just that, until his death at age 91.

An Interview with Ray Bradbury

On January 5, 2005, Dana Gioia, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, interviewed Ray Bradbury in Los Angeles. An excerpt from their conversation follows.

Dana Gioia: How did you come to write Fahrenheit 451?

Ray Bradbury: In 1950, our first baby was born, and in 1951, our second, so our house was getting full of children. It was very loud, it was very wonderful, but I had no money to rent an office. I was wandering around the UCLA library and discovered there was a typing room where you could rent a typewriter for ten cents a half-hour. So I went and got a bag of dimes. The novel began that day, and nine days later it was finished. But my God, what a place to write that book! I ran up and down stairs and grabbed books off the shelf to find any kind of quote and ran back down and put it in the novel. The book wrote itself in nine days, because the library told me to do it.

DG: What was the origin of the idea of books being burned in the novel?

RB: Well, Hitler of course. When I was fifteen, he burnt the books in the streets of Berlin. Then along the way I learned about the libraries in Alexandria burning five thousand years ago. That grieved my soul. Since I'm self-educated, that means my educators—the libraries—are in danger. And if it could happen in Alexandria, if it could happen in Berlin, maybe it could happen somewhere up ahead, and my heroes would be killed.

DG: Decades after Fahrenheit 451, do you feel that you predicted the world, in that sense, fairly accurately?

RB: Oh, God. I've never believed in prediction. That's other people's business, someone like H.G. Wells with The Shape of Things to Come. I've said it often: I've tried not to predict, but to protect and to prevent. If I can convince people to stop doing what they're doing and go to the library and be sensible, without pontificating and without being self-conscious, that's fine. I can teach people to really know they're alive.

DG: Did you think of this book from the beginning being about the growth, the transformation of Montag's character?

RB: Never for a moment. No. Everything just has to happen because it has to happen. The wonderful irony of the book is that Montag is educated by a teenager. She doesn't know what she is doing. She is a bit of a romantic sap, and she wanders through the world. She's really alive though, you see. That is what is attractive about her. And Montag is attracted to her romantic sappiness.

DG: What do you think the turning point is in this novel, in terms of making Montag come into his new life?

RB: Well, when Mrs. Hudson is willing to burn with her books. That's the turning point, when it's all over and she's willing to die with her loved ones, with her dogs, with her cats, with her books. She gives up her life. She'd rather die than be without them.

DG: If you joined the community that appears at the end of Fahrenheit 451 and had to commit one book to memory, what book would that be?

RB: It would be A Christmas Carol. I think that book has influenced my life more than almost any other book, because it's a book about life, it's a book about death. It's a book about triumph.

DG: Why should people read novels?

RB: Because we are trying to solve the mystery of our loves, no matter what kind you have. Quite often there's an end to it and you have to find a new love. We move from novel to novel.

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