I generally have several books going at any one time. There are the books on my iPhone, the books on my Kindle, the books in the bathroom, the books I’m reading to review, and the books I picked up and skimmed before setting aside to get to later.
Just recently I read “Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess” by Phil and Kaja Foglio, followed it with “Lullaby,” the new post-Parker Spenser book, then dove into “Redshirts” by John Scalzi (my review is here). I started “The Red House” by Mark Haddon, but I set that aside temporarily to zip through Justin Halpern’s “I Suck At Girls” and Jennifer Crusie’s “Crazy People.” I also took some time to read Joe R. Lansdale’s “Devil Red” and to reread Terry Pratchett’s “Snuff,” and currently I’m alternating between Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” and my advance copy of “The Long Earth” by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. That is, more or less, my last two weeks of reading, and it’s pretty typical.
Then, last week, Ray Bradbury died.
There have been many wonderful testimonials and memories and tributes written to Ray in the last week and I’ve enjoyed reading every one I could find. I don’t have any Ray Bradbury stories myself. Never met him, never corresponded with him, so I didn’t write anything at the time besides a tweet or two. But I did set my waiting stack aside and pulled out my battered copy of “The Martian Chronicles.”
In the early 1970s I was already, at 6 and 7 and 8, reading way beyond my years and alternately delighting and frightening librarians. I whizzed through the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books and Encyclopedia Brown and The Three Investigators. I was well-acquainted with Alice and Pooh and Toad and Huckleberry Finn and, frustrated with librarians who kept pointing me to the short shelves, I skulked, secret-agent style, over to where the books all had pictures of rockets on the spines.
I couldn’t tell you what the first one was; it would be fitting were it a Bradbury, but it could just as easily have been Heinlein or Asimov or Clarke or any of dozens more. I can tell you that Bradbury was one of the first authors I can remember hunting for by name.
That said, it’s been decades since I’ve read the book. (Yes, I reread books. A lot. Little delights me more than to discover it’s been long enough for me to reread a beloved book — or series — because it means I know what I’ll be reading next. Heroin addicts got nuthin’ on me.) And I wondered, frankly, how well it would hold up. The stories were written in the 40s, after all, when water in canals on Mars was a possibility and everything was atomic. I’ve read 30 years of science fiction since, nearly all of it more scientifically accurate or plausible and much of it with characters more recognizable to my late-20th-early21st-century sensibilities and experiences.
I was lost in the book by the third page.
Part of that, surely, was nostalgia. I loved these stories early and well, and that came rushing back. But the middle-aged me was just as captivated. Bradbury’s gift was never science. What he could do, the way Poe and Twain could do, was describe settings and people so well, with evocative language that was closer to poetry than fiction, that you couldn’t help but be moved. The stories themselves are unlikely or forced? So what? Look at what they taught a 7-year-old:
The dangers of jealousy (“Ylla”) . Conservation (“The Settlers”). How the horrific can become the mundane (“The Musicians”). The everyday evil of racism (“Way in the Middle of the Air”). The delight to be found in thwarting the censors (“Usher II”).
That’s just one book. He wrote 27 novels and over 60 short stories. Without ever meeting me, he gave me a life-long love for Halloween, the real Halloween, the one that lurks under the plastic costumes and sacks of candy and will reach out and grab you while wearing a shape you won’t expect. Without ever meeting me, he showed me that there is, there must be mystery and the unknown even in the scientifically mapped-out future. Without ever meeting me, he schooled me in writing emotions and senses. Without ever meeting me, he taught me the most important thing in any story is never, ever the plot, but the people.
Ray Bradbury taught me that no matter how far into the future you go, humans will still be humans.
From accounts, Bradbury was warm, curmudgeonly, amazingly generous to fans, and a bit of a crank. He famously resisted releasing his books as ebooks, claiming that electronic books “smell like burned fuel.” He did release “Fahrenheit 451,” but reportedly only because the contract was up for renewal and the publisher insisted. His fear was that electronic readers and television and video games and the “internets” would distract people from reading books, even though the rise in ebook readers has encouraged people to read more than ever. I kinda hope his estate is more relenting on the topic; I’d hate to think future readers might miss out on what I had. (UPDATE: And then I find this article that says he was finally relenting and his HarperCollins backlist will soon be available digitally, so there’s that. But I’ll bet he wasn’t happy about it.)
I’ll be going back to my waiting books now. But every now and then I’ll set my iPhone and my Kindle aside and I’ll pull out another musty old paperback. For Ray.