The Big Read — Fahrenheit 451 re-introduces Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” to San Diego and encourages everyone to read literature just for the joy of it. Events include guest authors, community reads, book discussions, workshops and much more. Check out the full schedule here.

When Write Out Loud started gathering photos from people asking “What book would you save from the flames?”, it was easy enough for me to approach strangers with the question. As a gregarious person, I sometimes alarm people with my big-smile approach, especially the quieter book-loving folk who come to a Write Out Loud event. So I was prepared for modest denials when asking people to pick a book, pose for a photo and let me upload it to Facebook for them.

What surprised me, as I helped at the Write Out Loud photo station during several events over the past few weeks, was the way that the people I approached became advocates of the books they chose. “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” has at least one very articulate spokesman. I had quite forgotten the denouement of that tribute to obsolescent technology — the steam shovel won its competition against the diesel upstarts to dig the basement for the town hall, but was transformed into the heating boiler for the new building in the end. In this day of reuse, recycle and renew it is an important lesson from childhood that I had quite forgotten.

The Gutenberg Bible and the History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Volumes 1-15) may speak for themselves, but they also have advocates in San Diego (many of them with superior calligraphic skills, as you can see by reviewing the photos at the Write Out Loud Facebook page).

What I found was not the bashful public that I expected, but a series of fascinating conversations about what makes a book inspiring, so inspiring as to actually risk one’s life to save, above all others. Hesitation, when it was expressed, came from those who simply could not choose which book to pull from the flames. Like a frustrating brain teaser, the plight of seeing all books save one consumed by fire was just too much for some to grapple with.

As a carnival-style barker for the Write Out Loud photo backdrop, I urge people to think, but not too deeply. “The flames are rising! You must move quickly! Your favorite book — snatch it fast!” This helps to move some folks past the stale debate of fiction versus non-fiction, children’s versus adult literature and so forth. It’s all burning! Grab one, quick!

Easy enough for authors to choose their own books, but poignant when an author’s wife chooses her husband’s book above all others to save; I have seen both.

The choice made, fascinating conversation ensues — and with it, new appreciation for the books that made an impression on me. The Mike Mulligan guy made me think about saving the Oz books. Folks who want to save the Bible make me want to consider other kinds of sacred literature. The Naval historian put me in mind of reference works that stand as the building blocks of today’s vast store of knowledge: anatomy, engineering, medical diagnosis, botany, zoology.

Naturally I have my own choice, a work of fiction by a San Diego-bred author who went on to lead a life of letters, mentoring writers who became more famous while still turning out great work himself: Corpus of Joe Bailey by Oakley Hall. But what book would Hall save from the flames? Perhaps not one of his own works, but one that he once recommended to me and that I have yet to read: William Faulkner’s short story “The Bear.”

The opportunity to learn from others what key inspiration, support, insight or uplift that they have received by reading certain books was the unforeseen gift to me of doing this little task for Write Out Loud.

And now — what book would you save from the flames? Leave a comment below.

Ross Porter is the executive administrator of the Spreckels Organ Society, producing concerts every Sunday at 2 p.m. on the Spreckels Organ in Balboa Park.

Want to spark discussion? Start a conversation by submitting a commentary at Fix San Diego.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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