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It was the summer before sixth grade when I discovered Ray Bradbury. I was 11 and an omnivorous reader as all bookish sorts are. Every week I would ride my bike to the library and come home with ten books, the maximum number I could borrow. I’d been able to get an adult card, even though you had to be thirteen to get one, because I had proven that not only did I return books on time, but I read them. The librarians all knew me.
The same summer that I found Ray Bradbury in the stacks was the summer I began to be unsettled by my attraction to other girls. I’d been in love with my third grade teacher and my fourth. I had had a crush on another girl all through fifth grade. When I found out the same nun who had taught me in fourth grade was now going to be the sixth-grade teacher, I was thrilled: I’d get another year with her. She was tall and slender with creamy Irish skin, dark eyebrows and deep blue eyes. I imagined her hair had been long and black before they cut it off when she took the veil. Black Irish, with a classic Irish temper that often resulted in hands being smacked with the long rubber-tipped pointer she used for teaching and corporal punishment.
Sister James loved to read and she liked that I read. She tried not to look at what I read and I tried never to bring books to school that were on the Condemned List.
I don’t remember now if Ray Bradbury was on that list, but I think the subversive nature of his writing must have put him at odds with the Vatican to some degree. I know that subversive quality attracted me and once I discovered his work, I couldn’t get enough of it. Fortunately for me, Bradbury was prolific. I’d started with Something Wicked This Way Comes and moved on to The Illustrated Man, both with their eerie, sensual circus tales which melded one world and another, one sexuality and another. Something Wicked further memorialised the role of the library in all things for me. From then on I just borrowed everything I could find with his name on it.
I’m not sure how Ray Bradbury got wrapped up in my budding queer sexuality, although tales like The Illustrated Man and Dandelion Wine are hauntingly sexual. But I think it was Clarisse, the female protagonist in his classic novel, Fahrenheit 451 who was the link between Bradbury and my latent lesbianism. I had seen the film version on television and Clarisse and Julie Christie, who played her, became one and the same to me. So when I got a copy of the book–a 25 cent used paperback at Leary’s, this massive three-story used bookstore in downtown Philadelphia a few blocks from Independence Hall–it instantly became my favorite book. I continued to read everything Bradbury I could find, but it was Fahrenheit 451 which mesmerized me. Bradbury’s terrifying fascist tale of books being banned and burned, of people hiding out with their books (not to mention Bradbury’s prescient depiction of reality TV which supersedes everything in society until books become suspect and illiteracy reigns supreme) until they were forced to literally become their favorite books by memorizing them–I was transported into that story. Like so many young queers unable to find a place in the real world, I could easily envision living in this utopian enclave within a dystopian society.
Plus, there was Clarisse.
These memories and so many others of Bradbury’s magnificent work flooded back to me with the news of his death in Los Angeles on the night of June 5th. There was something almost mystical about the fact that Bradbury died as Venus was in transit across the sun–the last time we’d see that rare astronomical event for more than a century.
One of Bradbury’s most memorable short stories is an anthem to the bullied child, “All Summer in a Day,” which takes place on Venus where the sun only appears for a few hours every seven years. A group of children lock a bullied girl in a closet in the story and she misses the day of the sun. It’s a breathtakingly haunting story.
Bradbury’s often chilling use of science fiction metaphors to deconstruct the way we on Earth torment each other was one of the things that compelled me and so many other writers who read Bradbury early on. Bradbury was the master of the small moment–the leaves swirling up in the opening pages of Something Wicked, the Book People talking their books to each other in Fahrenheit 451, the penultimate darkness of the closet in “All Summer in a Day,” the fantastical moment in The Illustrated Man when the tattoos come alive.
He didn’t obfuscate with his sci-fi and fantasy stories–he was always detailing the complexities of the interior life of his characters within the context of a vivid cultural and physical landscape, regardless of where those characters were situated. And in his lush, lyrical descriptions the marginal became central.
I think for me, as a queer writer, Bradbury continues to resonate because he focused so intently on the marginalized in his work. He had such depth of understanding about what it meant to be on the margins of society–any society–whether one was a young child or an old man or woman. Science fiction can often distance the reader from what is being written about, but such was not the case with Bradbury. He brought his readers in, sat them down, told them a story that was so close to their own experience, it didn’t matter if it was Venus or Mars or some small town in the Midwest. It all felt familiar and real and true.
Bradbury was two months shy of his 92nd birthday when he died and the number of writers and artists he influenced was manifold, among them Stephen Speilberg, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, all of whom commented on his passing. Gay rock icon Elton John wrote “Rocket Man” as an homage to Bradbury. One can see his influence on almost every notable science fiction and fantasy writer, queer or straight. Samuel Delany’s work, for example–considered iconic in its own right–was clearly influenced by Bradbury.
Bradbury had been writing for well over a decade–he’d begun writing in his teens–when he met Christopher Isherwood in an LA bookstore. Bradbury, who had no formal training as a writer, nor any secondary education after high school (he noted later in his life that during the Depression no one could afford college and he was self-taught from libraries) had first been published in and then began publishing his own fanzines. But his meeting with Isherwood allowed him to give his most recent work to what he called “a real critic.” Isherwood’s glowing review of The Martian Chronicles caused others to take note of Bradbury’s increasingly vast oeuvre. He was 30 when Isherwood’s review appeared. It would not be long after that before his name would become synonymous with the best of science fiction.
At the time of his death, Bradbury had long been the grand master of science fiction and fantasy. He write 27 novels and more than 600 short stories. He had close to 10 million books in print. In addition to his novels and short stories, he was an essayist, a poet, a playwright and a screenwriter. He wrote the screenplay adapting Melville’s Moby Dick to film and so many of his own stories were made into films and TV series, including The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Ray Bradbury Theatre” that he had his own star in Hollywood.
Bradbury disliked technology and refused to allow his books to be digitized. He hated ebooks. But according to Time magazine, when the publishing rights for Fahrenheit 451 were up for review in December 2011, Bradbury acceded to the publisher’s request to put the book in ebook form. But when he did so, it was with the agreement that anyone could download it for free at public libraries. It’s the only title for which Simon & Schuster has made such provision.
Bradbury continued to write until his death. His last published work was the essay “Take Me Home” in last week’s Science Fiction issue (June 6, 2012) of The New Yorker. It’s a wonderful, poignant, moving piece about what influenced him as a writer.
Bradbury took us to other worlds but in doing so illumined our own. He was a man who loved books and writing and people. He continued to attend book and sci-fi conventions until 2009 because he enjoyed them and because he liked talking to people about his work and theirs. Bradbury influenced so many writers over the decades of his writing life that none of us who are readers has not in some way been touched by his work.
Bradbury had his tombstone written before his death. It reads simply, “Author of Fahrenheit 451.” Despite his myriad works and range of accomplishments, it was his first book that remained his favourite.
Seventy years later it’s a story that has even more resonance now in this era of sound bites and faux celebrity and growing dispassion for literature perhaps than it did when it was first published. That it has been kept in print for decades is a tribute to just how resonant a book it remains.
Fahrenheit 451 is both classic love story and classic myth–the battle between good and evil is laid bare throughout, but the love of books drives the protagonists forward, even in the face of possible death. Yet in the end, we are unsure who wins: fascism or idealism.
That was Bradbury’s genius–he depicted the future but tied it with such clarity to our present. Fahrenheit 451 is a cautionary tale, as are so many of Bradbury’s works. And for those of us who love books, it’s a tale as scary as they come.
Bradbury may have left us, but his legacy indeed lives on in words as compelling and meaningful today as they first were for me that summer so long ago.
Plus, there is Clarisse….