“Walk carefully. Guard your health. If anything should happen to Harris, you are the Book of Ecclesiastes.” – Fahrenheit 451
Celebrities die all the time. This one, however, feels different for me. Ray Bradbury may be the first author who I consider to have been a major and formative influence in my life who has died during my lifetime. In eleventh grade we were assigned to write a long literary analysis of two works by the same author (long for me was then ten to twelve pages. Ah, the good old days). In a year of American Lit, surrounded and suffocated by realists, the introduction to the weird and striking short stories of Ray Bradbury was a breath of fresh air. I chose to write on Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles.
To call myself the biggest Bradbury fan would be a stretch to say the least. My tastes have always leaned toward the fantastic over the scientific and there are authors who have dominated my shelf more consistently. There are few, however, who showed me with such zeal what reading and writing could be. In retrospect, I can see that my high school years included my most important reading experiences: These were the years in which my tastes were refined and my allegiances were formed. Many of my favorites were first encountered then. Fahrenheit 451 will always remain in my “desert island” list of greats, and I can still remember the spooky awe with which I read first read his short and chilling love letter to Poe, “Usher II.” Bradbury’s images imprinted themselves in my mind. His ideas are shocking, inspiring, and challenging all at once. He was someone who reminded us (certainly, me) to cherish and remember the past and to keep a watchful eye to the future.
As is evident from the flurry of statements and articles making their way across the interwebs in the days since his death, I’m not the only one who feels this way. It’s strange to think that Bradbury was one of the giants who made modern genre fiction, and fiction in general, what it is today. He is considered one of the leaders of the Golden Age of science fiction, which fell between the “pulp era” of the 20’s/30’s and the New Wave of the 60’s and 70’s. Can you believe that? This guy was pumping out groundbreaking stories before my parents were born, and has continued to create them ever since. Over a seventy year career, he created over 500 published works. Jeez. All I know is that his stories were as powerful to me in the early twenty-first century as when they were first published.
I’d like to end with the words of one of his inheritors, Neil Gaiman:
[Ray Bradbury] took an idea of the American Midwest and made it magical and tangible, who took his own childhood and all the people and things in it and used it to shape the world. The man who gave us a future to fear, one without stories, without books. The man who invented Hallowe’en, in its modern incarnation. There are authors I remember for their stories, other authors I remember for their people. Bradbury is the only author I remember who sticks in my heart for his times of year and for his places. He called a book of short stories The October Country. It’s the perfect Bradbury title. It gives us a time (and not just any time, but the month that contains Hallowe’en, when leaves change colour from green to flame and gold and brown, when the twigs tap on windows and things lurk in the cellars) and it makes it a country. You can go there. It’s waiting.
With all his incredible turn-out, I’ve barely scraped the surface of what Bradbury has to offer. I think I’ll let him sit on my shelf for a while longer, but when October rolls around it will be time to take him down, dust him off, and let him teach me a few more things.