Note: This blog originally appeared on tobinelliott.com.
This is the third in a series of blogs where I go back and examine the books that deeply affected me and became part of the foundation of the person I am now.
Click on the titles to read the others
I’d discovered Robert A. Heinlein’s books shortly after unlocking the secrets of the public school library. That was chronicled in my last blog. After a while, I exhausted the library’s supply of Heinlein books and I can distinctly remember thinking, well, now what?
Staying in the area I felt comfortable in, I looked again to the SF section. I’d previously dug out a book with a striking cover that captured my attention. A bald, naked man, tattooed from the neck down, sitting on a slapped-together platform against a red landscape. Was this Mars? Why was he on that platform? What was with the tattoos? What was with The Illustrated Man?
And who was this Ray Bradbury guy, who was quoted on the cover as “The world’s greatest science-fiction writer.” Surely that was Heinlein, not this Bradbury guy, wasn’t it?
I had to find out. And besides, this cover was easily the most eye-grabbing cover I’d ever seen on a book.
I quickly found out it was a book of short stories, something I had not yet read. Of course I knew of short stories, but short science fiction stories? Nope, that was a new one to this still-virginal reader. I was all of ten or eleven years old at the most.
And, even at that tender young age, even though much of the subtle nuance of the typical Bradbury story likely flew miles above my head, still…still, there was magic in these words.
Bradbury captured me quickly with The Veldt, a story that still crackles against my imagination to this day. A 3D nursery? Kids that don’t want it shut off? I could relate to that aspect, as my mother told me I watched far too much television. She was likely correct. But damn, what those kids did next…it was, to use an overused and undervalued expression, mindblowing to my pre-teen sensibilites.
Kaleidoscope showed me dying astronauts and a child watching falling stars. He caught me again with his subtle magic with The Highway and the couple that missed the end of the world.
The Long Rain, with its description of constant Venusian rain, enough to drive men to suicide…whoa.
Zero Hour was another one that hit me like The Veldt. The nation’s kids are all playing a game called Invasion, that the parents essentially wonder about, but ultimately pass off as a kid’s game. Then the invasion actually happens. Again with the creepy kids.
Then there was The Rocket Man. I’ll pull the Wikipedia description for this one:
Astronauts are few in number, so they work as they desire for high pay. One such astronaut goes off into space for three months at a time, only returning to earth for three consecutive days to spend time with his wife and son. The story is told from the perspective of the son, who holds an interest in one day also becoming an astronaut. Talking with his father, the son learns of the constant battle he faces with yearning for the stars at home while yearning for home while in space. Despite this he has several times attempted to quit, staying at home with his family as he realizes his constant absence has nearly destroyed his wife. At the end of the story the father takes off into space one last time, only to meet his end by the sun. His wife and son now avoid the daytime and become nocturnal.
The Rocket Man hit close to home…uncomfortably close. My father wasn’t a rocket man, but he did love flying and constantly left us to spend months in remote locations like Africa or the Arctic or Greenland. When he came home, he itched to leave like a heroin addict craving their next hit. And because of that, and a lot of other things, I lost him to divorce at the age of five. So, though I didn’t really understand the concept of allegory, I saw myself as the kid in that story.
The stories that I didn’t quite “get” at the time included The Other Foot, considering the young me had no real experience or interest at the time in interracial relations. The Man with its religious undertones also left me feeling nothing, having very little in the way of a religious upbringing at the time. The same goes for The Fire Balloons.
And of course, there were other stories in the collection. Eighteen in all. Each one a strange and wonderful world.
How did this book change my life?
These stories struck me in a strange way. Initially, when I read them, I found myself a little disappointed. Nothing big happened. There’s little violence and no battles and no explosions. The only monsters seemed to be human. Bradbury’s stories were…quiet. They seemed to be told with the volume down.
Then that disappointment turned to realization that stories didn’t always need explosions and violence to entertain. But more than that, Bradbury’s stories made me think. Actually think about people, about humans, about mankind. He was the first author that held up a mirror and showed me myself and those around me.
And he did it quietly, subtly and with a precise skill. And he did it in short stories, quick hits to my psyche. He didn’t even need the length of a novel to get to me. That was new.
In talking about the books that changed my life up to now, I also acknowledge that, if I went back and read them, I would no longer be entertained, challenged or engaged in them. But not so with Bradbury. He’s an author I continue to read. I keep going back to books like Farenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes and still, each time I read them, I marvel at the man’s style. Oh sure, his future isn’t what it used to be, his Mars and his Venus have been unveiled as fiction (albeit beautiful fiction), but still, the central ideas hold true.
For works that are six decades old, that’s impressive.
So, from Ray Bradbury, I got a different sense of wonder, a more reflective wonder. It’s something that I try to seed into my own fiction, though I’ll never reach the mastery of the late, great Ray Bradbury.
Thank you, Ray.
Did you ever read something that changed your life?
Did you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you hadn’t been able to read those words?
What if you couldn’t read? How different would your life be?
What if you couldn’t read Facebook status updates? What if you couldn’t read well enough to Google whatever you need to know? What if you couldn’t read to your kids? What if you couldn’t read a street sign? What if you couldn’t read the instructions on the pill bottle? What if you couldn’t fill out that job application?
What if you couldn’t read?
I’m the person I am now because I can read. I couldn’t imagine a life without a constant influx of words to entertain me, to irritate me, to make me laugh and make me cry.
But I know there’s many out there, and I’m trying to help them. Please, if you read and enjoyed this blog, or if it made you think back to a book that changed your life, please consider helping me help those who are trying to read.
I’m participating in the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a 72-hour event where 40 writers try and write as much as they can, while raising money to fund Literacy and Numeracy programs for adults in the Simcoe/Muskoka area. And the program works. One of the lucky people who went through their literacy program has now joined our group as a writer. How often can you donate money and look at the walking, talking, reading and writing result?
Any amount is sincerely appreciated.
Please. Help me change someone’s life through reading.