The author, who died this week at 91, wrote novels and short stories that highlighted the transformative power of a good narrative.
Ray Bradbury's best-known work, the novel Fahrenheit 451, opens with a book burning—a mountain of stories and information and ideas on the funeral pyre.
"It was a pleasure to burn," the narrator tells us, "It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed."
Of course, Bradbury abhorred the idea of precious human knowledge going up in smoke. It chills us that the protagonist, Montag, isn't bothered by the sight—he can only think of roasting a marshmallow over the flames, watching "while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch." We hear the author's horror in this descriptive image, which imbues books with so much life. They contain ideas, wings, and breath, and they can die.
Ray Bradbury died Tuesday night at 91, and it's the same kind of sadness: A voice that spoke, and spoke clearly, has gone silent. He authored 27 beloved novels and an astonishing 600 short stories. He added entire new concepts to our lexicon—most famously, the butterfly effect, a term used in chaos theory. (It describes a minute change that has huge repercussions elsewhere, an allusion to his story "A Sound of Thunder." )
I, like many others, first heard and responded to this electrifying voice when I was young. I encountered him in middle school, when my English teacher assigned us "All Summer in a Day." The story is set on Venus, and it's a gloomy, ashy planet that thunders with unending gray rain. The sun comes out only once every seven years, for just an hour, and the schoolchildren of Venus—let's just say they very badly need some Vitamin D.
Except Margot—she grew up on Earth, and she regales her classmates with stories of the endless summers there, how warm, and how lovely, how much better summer is than rain and how she cannot wait to see it. And they hate her, because she remembers.
The setup alone shows Bradbury's strengths—he could transport us, in deft strokes, to an alien world, one that feels as sharp and real and heartbreaking as ours. But what startled me most was what happens. When the sun starts to come out, the other children lock Margot in the closet before they run out to play. And it's just as warm and beautiful as she told them. The idyllic hour passes all too quickly: the clouds sweep in, and the rains start pelting, and only then do they remember that their friend is weeping behind the door.
The absolute psychological truth of this startled me, and woke me up, like waking to the smell of smoke. I'd seen this cruelty before in childhood pranks and games, I recognized the sadistic wisdom of it, and I knew it to be real. The last, plaintive lines of the story stuck with me for years:
One of the girls said, "Well . . .?"
No one moved.
"Go on," whispered the girl.
They walked slowly down the hall in the sound of the cold rain. They turned through the doorway to the room in the sound of the storm and thunder, lightning on their faces, blue and terrible. They walked over to the closet door slowly and stood by it.
Behind the closed door was only silence.
They unlocked the door, even more slowly, and let Margot out.
The guilt and contrition just simmers on the page. They're sorry—but though they can let her out, they can't ever take it back. It haunted me. It made realize that a story, well-told and true, can be powerful at least as memory. It made me want to keep reading, and it made me want to be a writer. I am only one of very many, of course, who responded this way to Bradbury's work, over the very many years he published.
The power of stories to transform and embolden was a key theme of Ray Bradbury's work and life. In an illuminating interview with The Paris Review, published in 2010, he characterized Fahrenheit 451 as a parable about the power of books and bookishness: "You invent a fireman who has been burning books instead of putting out fires," he said, "...and you start him on the adventure of discovering that maybe books shouldn't be burned. He reads his first book. He falls in love. And then you send him out into the world to change his life."
Books, of course, had the same transformative effect on Bradbury's own life. Self-taught to the core, he never went to college or had any formal education after high school. Instead, he learned all he knew through keen observation, and through the offerings of public libraries.
"I am a librarian," he told The Paris Review. "I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt...I discovered that the library is the real school."
But he had his own catalytic moment of awakening. It was a story he told many times, most recently in The Paris Review interview. (And it's really worth reading in full—his ability to shift from interview responses into full-blown literary narrative, spoken off the cuff, is astounding.)
He went to a fair when he was young and saw a circus man called Mr. Electrico, a performer who sat in an electric chair and gave himself a 50,000-volt shock. "Lightning flashed in his eyes and his hair stood on end," Bradbury said, but Mr. Electrico never died.
Afterwards, Mr. Electrico "reached out with his sword and touched everyone in the front row, boys and girls, men and women, with the electricity that sizzled from the sword." They all felt something crackle in their bones. And when he gave 12-year-old Bradbury the spark, Mr. Electrico also whispered something in his ear.
Those words altered his life. "I felt changed," he told The Paris Review. "He gave me importance, immortality, a mystical gift. My life was turned around completely. It makes me cold all over to think about it, but I went home and within days I started to write. I've never stopped."
What were the words? They were strong enough to make him want to make him devote himself to stories, to create words and worlds so enduring that they could never be purged with flame or stanched with smoke.
Mr. Electrico whispered to Ray Bradbury: "Live forever."
And he will.
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