Literary Hub

5 Books Ray Bradbury Thought You Should Read

On this day 64 years ago—October 19, 1953—Ballantine Books first published Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Praised by science fiction fans and literary critics alike, the novel bridged the supposed chasm between genre writing and “serious” literature, winning awards from both the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as the World Science Fiction Society. Today, Fahrenheit 451 is considered not only a classic of science fiction, but of 20th-century American literature, period.

Bradbury’s novel was inspired by his love for books, so what better way to celebrate its anniversary than by sharing the books that he himself cherished? The five titles below are works that Bradbury not only praised, but lived with in various ways. They, and the stories around them, are cribbed from Sam Weller’s Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Gods of Mars (1918)

When Bradbury began writing at the precocious age of 12, it was to pen a sequel to this novel about an Earthling’s journey to be reunited with his Martian wife. “I was busy imitating all my favorite writers,” as he put it.

In fact, Bradbury’s esteem for Burroughs extends far beyond childhood imitation. In a 1976 interview with The Paris Review that was never published (except in Listen to the Echoes), Bradbury said, “Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world.” He defended this admittedly provocative view by explaining how Burroughs, who not only invented The Gods of Mars’ John Carter but Tarzan as well, inspired an entire generation. “I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic,” he said. “Burroughs put us on the moon.”

Leigh Brackett, Lorelei of the Red Mist: Planetary Romances (2007)

If Bradbury’s praise of Burroughs is over the top, then his regard for Brackett is over the moon. He described her early tales from Planet Stories magazine (many of which are included in this collection) as “Edgar Rice Burroughs par excellence”—except “she could write better.”

Best known as the screenwriter behind The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Long Goodbye and The Empire Strikes Back, Brackett was also Bradbury’s mentor. The two met in 1938 through the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society (which also included Robert A. Heinlein), then got together every Sunday at Muscle Beach in Venice, where “she read my bad stories and I read her good ones,” as Bradbury put it. Self-deprecation aside, Bradbury and Brackett actually worked very closely together—as is evident from this collection’s title story, which they co-authored in 1946.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

When Bradbury says that Steinbeck became “part of my life and my soul” after reading The Grapes of Wrath at 19, it’s tempting to write him off as overly sentimental. But astute readers of The Martian Chronicles may pick up on the very real connections between these ostensibly very different writers. As Bradbury explained: “In The Grapes of Wrath, every other chapter is a description, a metaphor, prose poetry, it’s not plot. … I subconsciously borrowed that structure from Steinbeck when I wrote The Martian Chronicles.”

Unfortunately the two authors’ first meeting was not as fitting. While staying in Mexico City in 1945, Bradbury ran into Steinbeck, who was there making the film adaptation of his novella The Pearl. Drunk at breakfast, Steinbeck accused Bradbury’s host of trying to blackmail him with scandalous photographs of his girlfriend—all while the host was simply on assignment for National Geographic.

 

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

When Hemingway’s novella was first being published in Life magazine, Bradbury and two friends went down to the printing plant to get copies at midnight. “We carried them off to a bar that was still open,” he recounted, “and we sat and read The Old Man and the Sea, and we talked about Papa and how much we loved him.”

That same night, one of Bradbury’s friends shared his experience of visiting a bar in Havana that Hemingway frequented. He didn’t meet the famous author, but he was told by a bartender that the resident parrot had once belonged to Hemingway. The anecdote became the basis of Bradbury’s 1972 short story “The Parrot Who Met Papa”—one of two stories he wrote about Hemingway. The other was 1965’s “The Kilimanjaro Device,” in which the narrator attempts to prevent Hemingway from committing suicide.

 

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851) 

Arguably, Bradbury found his way to this “Great American Novel” backwards. A lifelong cinephile in general and fan of John Huston in particular (“I saw The Maltese Falcon 14, 15 times, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre scores of times” Bradbury told The Paris Review), the author gave the director copies of his short story collections when they met in 1951. According to Bradbury, Huston “sensed the ghost of Melville” when reading “The Fog Horn,” his short story about a sea monster who mistakes a lighthouse for a mate, and offered him a job writing the screenplay for the 1956 film adaptation of Moby-Dick.

Bradbury’s response? “Gee, Mr. Huston, I’ve never been able to read the damn thing.”

With one night to read enough of Moby-Dick to decide whether or not he could adapt it for the screen at the request of Huston, his “hero” (Bradbury’s phrase), the author plunged in. “I dove into the middle of it instead of starting at the beginning,” he told The Paris Review. “I came across a lot of beautiful poetry of the whiteness of the whale and the colors of nightmares and the great spirit’s spout. … I turned back to the start: ‘Call me Ishmael,’ and I was in love!”

Bradbury, of course, chose to go ahead with writing the screenplay—and he even wrote a book about it: 1992’s Green Shadows, White Whale. After all, the voracity of Bradbury’s reading could only be matched by the riot of his writing.

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Feature image: cover from 1970s edition of The Gods of Mars.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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