Monday, November 16, 2009

Books That Changed My Life

"My job is to help you fall in love."

In 1991 I was a dorky early teen. Never even kissed a girl, probably still was wearing t-shirts with superheroes on them, still very shy and sensitive. The book in question is partially a book that changed my life, although really it's more tied to a life changing event in my young life than a text which changed my life. The event and book I walked away with wasn't so much a time bomb as a neutron bomb. It's seeped into every corner of me in the years that followed.

I am also aware that thus far the books in this series have all been a little odd, not quite the best known. I assure you that I will get to the major works of, say, Twain, Dickens and Shakespeare in good time. Tonight I'm focusing on Green Shadows, White Whale which is a book by Ray Bradbury. But mainly it's about a night where that geeky young Paul went to see Ray Bradbury give a speech and left a changed young man.

The speaking event was at Chapman University, the university which years later I would end up earning a BFA from. It seems likely and fitting that that was the first time I'd ever set foot on that campus. My education began there in a lot of ways. Bradbury came onstage in his then signature white tennis outfit. I wish I had a recording of that night, but a few specifics burned into my brain. I remember him telling story about when he was a boy collecting the newspaper comic serials of Buck Rogers. He'd accumulated hundreds of them and had shoeboxes full of them. One day some of his peers made fun of him over it and he ran home and ripped up all of the comics. He said it was one of the great regrets of his whole life. From then on he realized he needed to be passionate about and interested in what he was passionate about and interested in, and that he shouldn't give a damn what other people thought. That's stuck with me. Although I've wrestled with "fear of man" issues, probably just like everyone does, that story left a life long impression on me.

He also talked about another theme that left a life long impression on me, and it's one that I even find myself writing about often on this very blog. That is that one should fill one's eyes and ears with greatness and curiosity - not with crap.

"Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories."

I'm sure there was a lot more, but those were the parts that stuck. I also seem to remember him being remarkably optimistic about the future which, coming from a house where the evening news was a nightly given, was like nothing I'd ever heard before.

After his speech he had a book signing. Lord bless him, he stayed until everyone who wanted to got to talk to him and, if memory serves, shy young Paul was one of the last people to dare to walk up to his signing table with a ratty old mass market paperback of The Machineries of Joy and a brand new copy, bought on site, of his new book Green Shadows, White Whale. I remember being extremely awkward and blubbering something about it being a wonderful night. I remember him shaking my hand and, Lord bless him, drawing me out a little in conversation with, as I've later heard is his habit, the realization that while he'd just had a huge long night, the person in front of him was meeting one of their heroes. I remember I did ask him the name of his cat which was in his author's photo in that period of his career (although I evolved as a reader, I was born a cat person.) He said its name was Tigger. I think the flier from the event is framed at my Mom's house and beside himself he signed his name and beside the cat he signed "Tigger." My copy of the book is signed in a sweeping signature on the fep in blue felt tip pen.

The book is a sort of autobiographical novel about his time in Ireland writing the screenplay for the Gregory Peck film version of Moby Dick. In it, he is a young, sensitive, highly imaginative author. He stands up to the bullyish John Huston character in a way that does not betray his own character (which also left a strong impression on the young me who had up to that point suffered a few bullies.) I remember the fantastic, almost magical realistic world of the Irish. If memory serves it's more of one of his "novels of many thematically similarly short stories strung together" and a bit episodic (like The Martian Chronicles or Dandelion Wine) rather than one of his from point A to point B books (like Fahrenheit 451 or Something Wicked This Way Comes.) It's a very good book and probably a bit unfair in not being one of his key texts. Although it's also probably not the first suggestion I would point someone unfamiliar with Bradbury to (that would probably be Fahrenheit 451), personal experience will always put this book in a special place for me.

In the years that have followed, Bradbury has always been one of my top authors. I can see my whole shelf of his books from here. I hardly go six months without reading one of his short stories out loud to Laurie, whether she likes it or not. I've read a good deal of his published works which is no small task. Bradbury has given me a lot unawares over the years. He's given me a writing ethic. He's encouraged me to always wonder, always ask, and always relish. He's also shown me a bold optimism that I constantly fail miserably to live up to, but continue to try.
Also, he provided a tether, a sort of a lifeline, through my teen years when peers and life were beating the people around me into dullards, preserving wonder for my own future. A line that extends back from me sitting right here and now back to a nerdy young man walking off a college campus on a warm Orange County night with distant clouds in his eyes with perhaps an occasional hint of lightning in them.

"Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down."


  1. Great personal story. I'm looking forward to each installment of "Books that Changed My Life." I really enjoyed and was sorry to finish, "Harpo Speaks." My kids and I have now watched a few Marx Brothers movies and this week my 10 year old made comment, "You know what would be really funny, Harpo cooking a meal." I don't know what she had in mind - but she's thinking imaginatively so thats fun. I just started reading Hammond's "Making of the English Bible." After finishing the introduction I'm really hopeful this could be one of those pivotal books that really help to expand my vision of literature, give a deeper appreciation of the translation process, and especially the Hebrew Idiom within the OT. Perhaps this is what I like best about these BTCML articles they challenge me to look for books that if not changing yet will impact my life.

  2. Yes, Tigger and Bradbury are on my wall. I remember that night well and he was so good at making each person he talked to feel like they were a long lost old friend that he greatly missed.

  3. Scott, I'm glad you enjoyed it!
    Laurie and I are about to receive in the mail and most likely fight over who gets to read first, The Meaning of the Pentateuch by John H. Sailhamer. From what I've heard it's an excellent read that we're both looking forward to.

  4. I saw a very enthusiastic comment from John Piper on that book - something like it "will rock your world". I remember giving my son a heads up on it. I hope you will give us your thoughts. I notice you mentioning Dickens quite often. We have two older children 22 and 25 and three younger, 10,11,13. When the older were younger I read to them Dickens' Christmas Carol on three different occasions. The first time in one sitting. But the younger have never had the priviledge. I just received a brand new copy of the unabridged and highly illustrated, Christmas Carol - so hopefully this year - we will once again enjoy some Dickens together. One last thing, after reading Pickwick Papers, I was surprised to see how often references are made to it in other literature, articles and movies. Must have been there all the time, but I didn't have clue what was meant and therefore paid no attention, until I read the book myself. Thanks for a great blog.

  5. Yes, I certainly will remark on it when we've finished it. John Piper's comments actually sold us on the book and we ordered it within 10 minutes of reading what he wrote.
    Yes, I love Dickens. He's one of my favorite authors.
    Thank you for your kind words.