Literary event fires up passion for books

By Lauren Kelly

Over the next six weeks, Columbia will host events focusing on Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Fahrenheit 451 as part of The Big Read, the largest literary initiative in United States history. The celebration is a nationwide event produced by the National Endowment for the Arts, with more than 200 participating communities.

“The Big Read aims to address directly the issue of a critical decline in reading for pleasure among American adults by providing citizens with an opportunity to read and discuss a single book within their communities,” said Sam Weller, Fiction Writing faculty member, as well as Bradbury’s biographer.

Director of the Columbia College Library Jan Chindlund said the college has formed new partnerships both in the college and the wider Chicago area, and all participants have “one common goal: to get people of all ages to read.”

The program is similar to the One Book, One Chicago, but on a national level.

Weller said according to a 2004 NEA survey, a quarter of American adults did not read a single book that year. If trends continue, in 50 years, no adults will be reading books.

He said he believes there is no better book than Fahrenheit 451 to illustrate this idea because of the book’s essential themes: “Censorship, what happens to a culture that no longer values books and the waxing influence of mass media and technology upon the individual,” Weller said.

First published in 1953, Bradbury’s most famous novel is often associated with 1984 and Brave New World as a haunting, dystopian vision of the future that has, at least partially, come true.

It tells the story of Guy Montag, a fireman who, instead of putting out fires, starts them to burn books, which are illegal and considered dangerous. When Montag sees a piece of text in the smouldering fire that reads, “Once upon a time …,” he decides to commit the ultimate act of rebellion: to read a book.

Bradbury, an Illinois native, has authored more than a dozen novels, including Dandelion Wine, The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man.

At The Big Read kick-off event on April 2, Esmé Raji Codell, the keynote speaker, author, children’s literary specialist and certified readiologist, shared her ideas about the importance of reading and inspiring children to be actively engaged with books. She shared her reading life story, focusing on key books from her childhood that she said made her who she is today.

Among the titles that influenced her were A Tree Grows is Brooklyn, Suzuki Beane, King Matt the First, Soup and Me and Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

Codell said she believes Fahrenheit 451 is also “a reading life story, about how a man comes to know and experience books.” She said, “At its heart, I don’t really think Fahrenheit 451 is a book about censorship,” she said. “Rather, the discomfort and difficulty of receiving what others have to offer. Fahrenheit 451 is a book about the terror we feel when faced with the task of reading other people and reading ourselves. This is what’s really inside the books the firemen drench with kerosene.”

After Codell spoke, a short documentary about Bradbury was shown. In 2006, A Conversation With Ray Bradbury filmed the author in his home talking about his childhood, work, passion and love of reading and libraries.

In the film, Bradbury described his experiences at the local library where he wrote Fahrenheit 451. Sitting in the middle of the shelves and letting the people in the books radiate upon him, he said he is constantly falling in love with books.

“Love what you do, and do what you love,” Bradbury repeated throughout the 20-minute film.

The Big Read events will continue through the rest of the semester, leading up to May 15, when Bradbury, now 88 years old, will march in the Manifest parade, speak at commencement and receive an honorary degree from the college.

For more information about The Big Read and Bradbury’s novel, visit