Ray Bradbury, An E-Book Holdout, Embraced The Future in the End

Ray Bradbury was right about so many things and spellbinding about so many others that it almost hurts to write this: Ray Bradbury was wrong when it came to reading. But then I also get to tell you this: he changed his mind.

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Ray Bradbury was right about so many things and spellbinding about so many others that it almost hurts to write this: Ray Bradbury was wrong when it came to reading. But then I also get to tell you this: he changed his mind. HarperCollins is in the midst of preparing its Ray Bradbury backlist for digital publication, paidContent has learned.

Bradbury’s longtime editor Jennifer Brehl talked to me about the plans and the author, who died Tuesday because, she said, “I don’t want people to think he was this dinosaur because he had some opinions” that he started to change late in life.

The details for the “huge undertaking” are still being worked out but Brehl said plans were well underway with Bradbury’s approval. (I’ve yet to reach Bradbury’s agent Michael Congdon.) “He knew we were going to do this,” she said. “He agreed to it. … I told Ray, ‘You have to step boldly into the future.’”

She added, “We respected his wishes for so long. [He finally said] ‘Yeah, ok, I see what you’re saying.’” The HarperCollins e-books all will be available to libraries no matter the publishers’ overall strategy, according to Brehl. “That was one of the big, big concerns.”

For too long, Bradbury equated reading with print

Bradbury fretted for decades over what would happen when reading books gave way to screens or was lost to ignorance. But for far too long, for Bradbury reading equaled print. The man who could see Mars missed the point closer to home: encourage reading in every form.

He also worried about the power of screens, as my colleague Mathew Ingram wrote. But he had no qualms about making books or stories into movies (whether he liked the results is a different matter). He embraced television, even adapting 65 short stories for HBO and USA’s The Ray Bradbury Theater and appearing in the opening. He allowed audio books.

But he famously kept most of his work from being published digitally (legally). Only a few short stories here and there and eventually, grudgingly, Fahrenheit 451, agreeing only to an e-book edition with the new print edition as long as it was made available to libraries. Publisher Simon & Schuster didn’t allow digital library lending so it was a victory.

That was the exception. Instead Bradbury either stymied his would-be digital readers — or sent them underground, a bit like Ray Bradbury characters willing to break the law to read. He was so protective of the form he missed numerous opportunities to make it easier to read his books. Yes, they’re mostly still available in print but they aren’t as accessible to everyone. It’s almost like a dare: if you really care about me and my work, if you really care about books, you won’t want digital versions.

But it wasn’t that. For Bradbury, says Brehl, it was about community. This is a man who went to the library to read and to write (Fahrenheit 451 was written in the basement typing room at the UCLA library), who saw the Internet as an isolating force that keeps people apart and as a massive distraction.

Brehl told me: “For a very long time, Ray was averse to having his books in digital because he felt the Internet did more about keeping people away from one other. If you have to have physical books you have to go to the library, you see each other. He thought the Internet put walls up between people.”

In Bradbury Speaks, a collection of essays published in 2005, he writes of the Internet with such derision that I can imagine this computer shooting sparks if he knew I was researching him online instead of in a library. Even worse, because it took him so long to come around, I’m reading the Internet essay in chunks via the Read Inside feature on Amazon instead of the digital edition I would have purchased last night, along with a couple of others, or checked out digitally from the library.

In 1996, he told a group at his childhood Waukegan Public Library:

“My God, all this Internet stuff is pure crap. You can’t take a computer to bed. You can take a book to bed.”

And, as numerous interviews and writings show, he didn’t like the idea of technology that removes personal control or responsibility.

Technological contradictions

He was a man of technological contradictions. He had a “giant” flat-screen TV, according to the New York Times, but resisted e-mail. Brehl laughed at one memory: for years, they faxed back and forth. When his daughter Alexandra took on responsibilities she and Brehl started using e-mail labeled Fax from Dad or Fax to Dad. They finally confessed and he got a kick out of it. “We enjoyed that,” she recalls. “I have no doubt he would have gone even further.” (You could almost see the smile over the phone when she also talked of Bradbury’s love of simple pleasures, like vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.)

He allowed NASA to send a digital version of The Martian Chronicle to Mars on mini-DVD in 2008, a book that it looks like we will finally get digitally on Earth. (S&S holds the print rights but not the digital, according to Brehl.)

Bradbury was right that reading a book in print is different — and about the smell, the crackle of pages, the way it feels to pick a title and make it a companion for however long it takes to read. I can close my eyes and see my first copy of The Illustrated Man, a used paperback from the bookstore I haunted as a kid in Memphis. Some books from college recently turned up, notes along the margin, words underlined, question marks and other symbols dotting the pages. Highlights in an e-book aren’t quite the same even though they may have made writing that thesis a lot easier.

While we talked on the phone, Brehl could see more than a dozen of his books that she’s left sticky notes in. Digital highlights aren’t the same for her either. But I also appreciate being able take otherwise-unwieldy books on a trip and the mind-and-money saving ability these past few weeks of mostly being housebound to download dozens of library books.

I’m not sure if Bradbury knew that you can read hundreds of pages of his work free through HarperCollins’ Browse Inside program. Not The Exiles, the one story I most wanted today (and literally can’t go looking for in my house because of some phsyical limits) but numerous complete stories from The Illustrated ManThe Veldt still has the power to completely creep me out, maybe more so on a screen — and other titles are there. Full books are not and in each anthology or book I found, The Exiles, first known as The Mad Wizards of Mars, was always in the unavailable section. (I am supposed to be able embed the Browse Inside versions here but so far the HarperCollins widget isn’t cooperating.)

The Exiles, one of numerous precursors to Fahrenheit 451, is about a colony of authors, including Charles Dickens, L. Frank Baum and Ambrose Bierce, on Mars who survive as long as their books stay in print and die as their books are destroyed on Earth. (Spoiler) An astronaut annihilates the colony when he burns the last books. It didn’t occur to him in that story — or as far as I know — any others that books could die if they were only in print, that the content — and the authors — could live on through other formats.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.