It was three in the afternoon on a Tuesday. I was sixteen, and unexpectedly anxious at a Barnes & Noble. Sitting at the top of a pyramid of books, calling out to me with its poetic title and its pulsating red and white aura, was Fahrenheit 451.
I didn’t actually want to read it then, I just wanted a better look at it. But I was 5’3” and the book was still a good three feet out of my reach, and I wasn’t going to jump for it, or ask someone to grab it for me because (I’m a big dumb idiot) I was pretty out of it and talking was always hard. So naturally, I threw another book at it to knock it off the pile. Needless to say I caused a couple heads to turn.
From the corner of my eye I saw a bookseller start to approach me. I felt awkward and stupid and didn’t really want to explain to anyone right that instant why I just did that (tbh, till this day I still don’t know). I picked up Fahrenheit 451, paid for it, and GTFO-ed.
Before then, I hadn’t been a big fan of reading. My parents didn’t know English, so they didn’t read to me, and we live in America so we couldn’t get Vietnamese books to read. Growing up, I didn’t really read. Hell, I didn’t even read Harry Potter till much, much later. But I did listen to a lot of stories. My mom loved to tell us fabricated horror stories to scare us into being good kids. And I mean real horror, like a-man-covered-in-blood-coming-to-eat-you-if-you-don’t-behave kind of horror (not kidding). While my dad liked telling funny stories, and my grandma loved recalling her various wartime romances, which are always fun to hear. I didn’t have books, but I had stories.
As the years went on, I talked to my parents a lot less, and they told me less stories. This actually didn’t bother me too much—I was getting busy with school, my parents were busy with work, and other things in life just got in the way of story time.
That was actually what I’d expected to happen with Fahrenheit 451—that I would be too busy, or simply unmotivated to read it, or other things in life would get in the way. I mean, at that point in time, I liked books a lot less than I liked story time, and even story time was gone. Yet somehow, the cover tempted me, and the irony of the novel was intriguing. I picked up the book, thinking I’d just casually skim it and set it with all the other classics I’d had to read for school.
I wound up reading through the night. I read through the morning. I was late for school and read under the desk through physics class. Luckily I was good at keeping a straight face, because I’d finished the book by the end of that class, and honestly felt like Ray Bradbury had just ran me over with a van full of… (feelings? thoughts?) something important.
One line really stuck with me. One scene, actually. Guy Montag, the book’s main character, was assigned to go to a woman’s house and burn all her books. When he and his team arrived, he realized that her entire house was filled with books, not just one or two. Going through with protocol, the firemen doused the house and books in gasoline. Montag and the other firemen tried to get the old woman to leave, but instead she asked to stay with her books, and even offered them a single kitchen match.
The old woman lit the fire herself while the firemen fled from the burning house. Later, Montag would recount this strange scene to his vapid wife, and say: “There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”
Admittedly, I didn’t turn that line over and over in my head, and explored every possible meaning of it or anything. It just stuck with me, simply, and it made me identify with Montag—I wanted to know why the woman stayed too. After finishing Fahrenheit 451, I picked up another book to try and find out why.