Excerpted from The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. Introduction © 2012 by Ray Bradbury, Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
When I was seven years old, I started going to the library and I took out ten books a week. The librarian looked at me and asked, “What are you doing?”
I said, “What do you mean?”
And she said, “You can’t possibly read all of those before they are due back.”
I said, “Yes, I can.”
And I came back the next week for ten more books.
In doing so, I told that librarian, politely, to get out of my way and let me happen. That’s what books do. They are the building blocks, the DNA, if you will, of you.
Think of everything you have ever read, everything you have ever learned from holding a book in your hands and how that knowledge shaped you and made you who you are today.
Looking back now on all those years, to when I first discovered books at the library, I see that I was simply falling in love. Day, after day, after glorious day, I was falling in love with books.
The library in Waukegan, Illinois, the town where I grew up, was a temple to the imagination. It was built by Andrew Carnegie, the philanthropist, who built libraries all across this great land. I learned to read by studying the comic strips in the Chicago Tribune. But I fell in love with reading at that old Carnegie library. It was this library that served as the inspiration for the library in my 1962 novel, "Something Wicked This Way Comes."
I will never forget the many magnificent autumn nights, running home with books in my hands and the October winds driving me home towards discovery. I found books on Egypt and dinosaurs, books about pirates, and books that took me to the stars.
I clearly remember checking out books on physiology, books that described what human beings were like, what their bodies were like, what the veins were like, what the feet were like, what the head was like, what the heart was like. So I learned about the physiology of humans from books when I was just a child. And I was curious about all the animals of the world, too. I couldn’t believe that God had created so many species. Of course, in many ways, one of the most miraculous creatures of all is the butterfly. They fascinated me as a child. When I read about butterflies, I realized that they are a metaphor for the totality of the universe. How is any of this possible? How did any of this happen? From the formation of a galaxy to the wings of a monarch! No one truly knows the answers. It is all such a great mystery.
Think about the butterfly for a moment. A caterpillar crawls along, eating leaves, fastens itself to a tree, and then an impossible miracle occurs: all of a sudden it goes into a protective stage, and, after a time, that caterpillar emerges from its chrysalis, sprouts magnificent wings, and turns into a butterfly. Where is the impulse that tells the butterfly to do any of that? Where was the impulse that caused the stars to form?
The books I brought home from the library caused me to think about the origins of life and the universe. How did it start? Where does it end? I recall Midwestern summer nights, standing on my grandparents’ hushed lawn, and looking up at the sky at the confetti field of stars. There were millions of suns out there, and millions of planets rotating around those suns. And I knew there was life out there, in the great vastness. We are just too far apart, separated by too great a distance to reach each one another.
I pondered all of these things because of books. I asked big questions because of books. I dreamed because of books. I started to write because of books. I read everything from comic strips, to history books, to the fantastic tales of L. Frank Baum, Edgar Allen Poe, H.G. Wells, and many others. None of this reading was required, mind you. I just did it. It was all impulsive. "The Best American Nonrequired Reading" reflects much of what I loved about reading when I first discovered its magical allure. Here you find cartoons next to great nonfiction magazine stories next to imaginative short fiction next to lists of curious arcana. Each page is a new discovery, a decorated Easter egg in the garden.
I am told the editorial process for this series is rooted in the involvement of high school students, selecting the stories and assembling each year’s edition. I published my own fan magazine, Futuria Fantasia, as a teenager in the late 1930s. I would have loved to work on this series. I imagine each young person who has poured his or her heart into this edition has been changed as a result.
The caterpillar sprouts wings.
And I know that, as with reading any book, you, dear reader, will change too.
Now go off and fly.
UPDATE: Ray Bradbury's official biographer, Sam Weller, tweeted about this piece saying "Ray Bradbury dictated this to me and, I can say with certainty, it is the last thing he wrote."
Great Ray Bradbury quotes: