June 6, 2012 § Leave a comment
I’d begun to convince myself that Ray Bradbury was going to live forever, I guess. Why else would I feel so gut-punched this morning? I can remember thinking that he would probably be gone soon back in the 199os; he continued to live and write until he was 91.
The New Yorker‘s current (first-ever) Science Fiction issue contains a remembrance by him, entitled “Take Me Home.” And now he’s gone.
Ray Bradbury’s books mean as much to me as anything I’ve read. This is something you can hear from many thousands of readers: he was a gateway drug, and he was a molder of minds and lives and space programs. I came to him at the perfect time, when I was twelve or so. If you were a certain type of kid who was getting tired of kid stuff like the Oz books and Choose-Your-Own-Adventures, but were finding the literature you really wanted to comprehend a little over your head, Bradbury showed you the way, led you into the world of adult reading for serious pleasure, made it obvious that you would want to read all of those classics, as well as all of the great fantastic stories out there. (I can remember checking out the Inferno, and The Waste Land, and even The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and returning them all unread, in the couple of years before I found Bradbury. After him, anything seemed possible.)
It was the giant Stories of Ray Bradbury collection, checked out from my small town’s public library. It was summer.
That book is the Proustian madeleine of my reading life: no other book, to this day, so conjures up a total sense memory of my reading it, where and when and how the reading happened. Most of the others that are close are Bradbury, too: Dandelion Wine, The October Country, and The Martian Chronicles especially. And, oh God, Something Wicked This Way Comes. This is ironic, considering that he’s one of the writers most closely associated with fantasy and imagination, not sensory detail. But it’s also fitting, for our laureate of nostalgia. (The very best kind of nostalgia, by the way: the kind that redeems the word itself. Ray Bradbury loves the best parts of the past like he loves the best parts of the future. He was one of our most loving writers, wasn’t he?)
I read “The Small Assassin” on a boat on a small lake on the Nebraska-South Dakota border. And “A Sound of Thunder” on our couch at home, with an afternoon thunderstorm outside. And “I Sing the Body Electric!” (the titular Whitman allusion of which I did not get) in the backseat of our station wagon. And “The Veldt” on a barstool, the book open before me on the bar, with that yellow summer light coming in through the windows. And, oh, “Mars Is Heaven” in bed, late at night, crickets outside…
Dandelion Wine remains, for me, the best book ever about what childhood should be like — which is the book’s subject — and one of the most beautiful works of lyricism in 20th-century America. The Elliott family stories like “Homecoming,” “Uncle Einar,” and the late novel From the Dust Returned remain some of my favorite weird fiction. Something Wicked remains the perfect horror folktale, and, along with The October Country, one of the best books to read in the week before Halloween.
It’s impossible now to imagine Fahrenheit 451 not having been written — it was a thing that just had to happen — but it’s Bradbury that did it. And it’s impossible now to imagine who I would have become without Bradbury, without him opening up the world to me and showing me all this amazing stuff. Here we all are, without him now. He should outlive us all, but damned if we don’t need to make sure it happens. Give a 12-year-old you know a Bradbury book. They’ll thank you later.