I was heartened to encounter a display of Ray Bradbury’s books on Wednesday at the Framingham Public Library in Massachusetts. I was disheartened to discover the “in memoriam” sign above them. It fits that I learned of the passing of the patron saint of libraries in one of his temples.
Ray Bradbury went to the library for three days a week for a decade. The Depression-era teenager had the intellectual but not the financial means to go to college. So he received an education, but not that prized piece of parchment, from the Los Angeles Public Library. He wrote an early draft of Fahrenheit 451 on dime-operated typewriters in the basement of UCLA’s library for $9.80 cents—a good investment for a book that sold more than five million copies. One of his last public appearances, covered in the New York Times in 2009, involved raising funds for a struggling Southern California public library in 2009. Not since Andrew Carnegie have lending libraries had such a forceful advocate.
Ray Bradbury is a pretty good reason to visit the library. There, America’s most accessible short-story writer will let you time-share without charge an amazing vanilla-ice-cream-colored suit with six Mexican-Americans; he will waive the price of admission to a fall fair where the carnies try to steal the youth from youths; and he will take you for free from the junkyard to Mars on a spare-parts ramshackle rocket. While his readers’ favorite destination may have been our outward planetary neighbor, Bradbury clearly favored Waukegan, Illinois, circa-1930. Even some of his Martian Chronicles descriptions of the red planet read as descriptions of Greentown, USA. And the more the author aged, the closer he grew to childhood. In “Hail and Farewell,” an adult asks a forever-young boy whether he has ever wanted to grow up. “I’m a boy, I told myself, I’ll have to live in a boy’s world, read boys’ books, play boys’ games, cut myself off from everything else. I can’t be both”—grown up and child. One senses Ray Bradbury in his creation here. Bradbury’s body aged more than 91 years. His imagination remained childlike—and moored in his childhood on Lake Michigan.
He constantly reminded his readers that he was one of them, too. His characters included the likes of Ernest Hemingway, George Bernard Shaw, and Herman Melville. His story titles paid homage to other writers’ works—“Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby Is a Friend of Mine” (Dickens), “The Golden Apples of the Sun” (Yeats), “I Sing the Body Electric” (Whitman). In his most famous book, Fahrenheit 451, the characters essentially become books to preserve them against a hostile culture exalting stupidity. Sound familiar?
Bradbury wasn’t so reverential toward the book that he envisioned their bindings as, well, bindings. A product of pop-culture as much as high literature, Bradbury freed his stories for use on old-time radio in the ’40s and ’50s; on television anthology series such as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Ray Bradbury Theater”; on the stage, particularly in Southern California; and on a few occasions—notably “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (1983) and “Fahrenheit 451” (1966)—to the silver screen. A peddler of detective fiction and weird tales dubbed “the poet of the pulps” by Time was necessarily tolerant of literature coming out from under the covers to find a greater audience. But the futurist’s atavist drew the line at eReaders, which he refused permission to market his works. Video games, computers, the Internet, and various gadgets of the digital age became objects of his scorn. When I interviewed him via email for an earlier piece in The American Conservative, I reached him through the intermediary of his daughter. Sci-fi’s technophobe didn’t do the interweb.
As fitting as learning of Bradbury’s death in a library was the librarian’s response. When I asked if Ray Bradbury had really died—he did insist he would live forever—the stern and silent bibliognost merely nodded. In a noisy world where cell-phone conversations and blasting iPods encroach on our thoughts, the librarian’s silence affirmed her workplace as a retreat from distraction. Here is where the next Bradbury imagines and the next Bradbury reader gets acquainted with Bradbury’s imagination. The writer was right. Ray Bradbury lives forever, and in his favorite place no less—the local library.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author, most recently, of Blue-Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America.