It was always a pleasant surprise that Ray Bradbury was still alive. The man was a living book.
He wrote dozens of books: “Fahrenheit 451,” the dystopic tale of a fireman whose task is to burn books. The mesmerizing voyages of “The Martian Chronicles” and “The Illustrated Man.” “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” The sun-suffused nostalgia of “Dandelion Wine.”
He loved books. He wrote like a man who loved books.
That stampeding sound you hear right now is the noise of the whole Internet dashing off to pen tributes to Mr. Bradbury. And he deserves them, of course. He is one of those writers who makes you want to write.
“What sad news about Ray Bradbury,” we type into our glowing screens, earbuds blocking out all sound, not having read a book in months.
He said so many things so wonderfully that you get lost and dizzy trying to cull a few lines to point to.
But what always shone through Bradbury’s prose was his absolute dominating passion for the book. Even in outer space, his protagonists read Poe. He had more to say about books and writing than about almost anything. (“The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.”)
Bradbury touched life often.
“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling,” he said.
He wrote awfully sad things. He wrote awfully beautiful things. There was a sadness that suffused him. He said in “Dandelion Wine” that “Some people turn sad awfully young. No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I’m one of them.”
Most creators of memorable dystopias do so with an eye to satire. In “Brave New World,” Huxley jabbed us in the ribs. His Alphas and Betas and Gammas wander around praising Ford in their Malthusian Belts and making the sign of the T. In “1984,” Orwell suggested a theory of the rises and falls of classes. His Winston works at the Ministry of Truth, propagating doublespeak and comes to love Big Brother.
Bradbury was less concerned with what might happen to the Ultimate Social Structure than what might happen to the book. “Fahrenheit 451” is hardly satire.
“Fahrenheit 451” has a strange, sad hopefulness to it. His characters give the sort of beautiful speeches that seventh-grade teachers tack up hopefully on the bulletin board and aspiring writer after aspiring writer quotes at the top of her blog. He knew that people did not have to burn books to destroy them. He lived long enough for the sadness to ripen, for screens to cover our walls and earbuds to plug our ears and books to vanish into the metallic confines of eReaders. It pained him.
“Fahrenheit 451,” with all its hope for books, is full of the beautiful sad sentences you write only if you believe in something that you fear to be untrue. Books might go, Bradbury said. But as long as people who love books survive, all is not lost. At the end of the book the protagonist, Guy Montag (Bradbury could be unsubtle, but that was half his charm), escapes to join a colony of people whose lives are consecrated to the sacred task of remembering books.
He described them:
Thousands on the roads, the abandoned railtracks, tonight, bums on the outside, libraries inside. It wasn't planned, at first. Each man had a book he wanted to remember, and did. Then, over a period of twenty years or so, we met each other, travelling, and got the loose network together and set out a plan. The most important single thing we had to pound into ourselves was that we were not important, we mustn't be pedants; we were not to feel superior to anyone else in the world. We're nothing more than dust-jackets for books, of no significance otherwise. Some of us live in small towns. Chapter One of Thoreau's Walden in Green River, Chapter Two in Willow Farm, Maine. . . . And when the war's over, some day, some year, the books can be written again, the people will be called in, one by one, to recite what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damn thing over again. But that’s the wonderful thing about man; he never gets so discouraged or disgusted that he gives up doing it all over again, because he knows very well it is important and worth the doing.
They’re hopeful words.
“And when he died,” one of his characters says in “Fahrenheit 451,” “I suddenly realized I wasn’t crying for him at all, but for the things he did. I cried because he would never do them again, he would never carve another piece of wood or help us raise doves and pigeons in the backyard or play the violin the way he did, or tell us jokes the way he did. He was part of us and when he died, all the actions stopped dead and there was no one to do them the way he did. He was individual. He was an important man. I’ve never gotten over his death. Often I think what wonderful carvings never came to birth because he died. How many jokes are missing from the world, and how many homing pigeons untouched by his hands? He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on.”
But in the end, he left us with books in our guts, his books.
He shaped the world. He did things to the world. He’ll be missed.