Saturday, June 9, 2012

Remembering Ray Bradbury

I met Ray Bradbury three times.

The first was in 1977 at the college where I was a student. He was the special speaker in an English Department sponsored event and my wife and I were there. Most of us were delighted when Bradbury started to swear eloquently as he called us to pursue our dreams and not be squashed by the machinery of respectability. The fun was enhanced by the withering of the faculty who, as teachers at a conservative Christian college, would normally not tolerate such language. I went up to chat with him afterward, probably saying the kind of ridiculous things that people like me say to famous authors.

The other two times were in my home town of Upland, California. He must have had some connections there because he served once as the marshall of our little town parade, and then returned to sign books at our tiny bookstore, comfortingly known as The Bookworm.

I took my older daughter to one of those book signing events when she was in junior high school. He chatted with us, then signed her book, intentionally spelling her name incorrectly. Then he crossed out his error, spelled her name the right way, and handed it to her with a grin on his face.

“There,” he said. “Now it’ll be worth more when I’m dead.”

But when I think about it, I met Ray many times in my life. Every time I read one of his stories, whether when I was ten years old or now, fifty years later, I have heard his voice narrating life and wonder in the poetic ways that were uniquely his. I hear his voice in my head when I write my own tales, shouting, “No, no no! Too sterile, too organized. Find your heart, you idiot! There’s a poet in you somewhere!”

Bradbury revealed both real-time accuracy and prophetic insight in his work. He anticipated the imprisoning of the imagination in giant TV screens (Fahrenheit 451) and mesmerizing video games (The Martian Chronicles). He even offered the occasional critique of popular religion, as in this brief quotation, spoken by the character Faber, from Fahrenheit 451. The main character, Montag, has just given Faber a book, an item that is now forbidden in this future world:

“It’s been a long time. I’m not a religious man. But it’s been a long time.” Faber turned the pages, stopping here and there to read. “It’s as good as I remember. Lord, how they’ve changed it in our ‘parlors’ these days. Christ is one of the ‘family’ now. I often wonder if God recognizes His own son the way we’ve dressed him up, or is it dressed him down? He’s a regular peppermint stick now, all sugar-crystal and saccharine when he isn’t making veiled references to certain commercial products that every worshipper absolutely needs.”

The book, of course, was a Bible.

I am going to return to my Bradbury books. Some are seasonal: Something Wicked This Way Comes should be read in the Fall. Dandelion Wine is for the Summer. Fahrenheit 451 could be reserved for Winter, as the roaring fires from burning books warm the chilled evenings. Death is a Lonely Business is a good one for the Spring, when Venice Beach is drifting slowly toward Summer.

Some of my Bradbury books have disappeared. I’ve given some to my grandsons who, unlike their mothers before them, have taken up the mantle of Bradbury studies. I think I’ll systematically replace my old paperbacks, and find good old hardcovers that attract dust and smell like nutmeg and old coffee. I’ll not put any on my Kindle, if that’s even possible. I don’t think Ray would go for that.

In Memory of Ray Douglas Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012)

1 comment:

MK Anderson said...

Great post! I love Bradbury too, and share your sensibilities about books in this digital age. I am collecting the books I love in hardback, and using kindle for all the ones it doesn't matter if I can touch in 20 years! So I think Bradbury was THE writer I read in paperback first, and now am replacing his writings in hardback.