You don’t have to be a die-hard science fiction fan to mourn the loss of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury wasn’t actually much of a science writer. He wrote about possibility. I started reading Bradbury in high school, much later than most of my friends. I read Fahrenheit 451, Martian Chronicle and Illustrated Man in three quick gulps. I admire Bradbury for his relentless optimism. No matter how bleak the times, his stories all finish with a sense of wonder and an expansive view of man’s destiny to make new things and explore. Bradbury believed that we are destined to get away from Earth and explore new worlds. I think he is right.
Bradbury’s most famous novel is probably Fahrenheit 451, which is often characterized as a dystopian warning against the abuse of government authority through censorship and the destruction of printed books. True enough. Had the novel rested there, it would have been a bit dull. Fahrenheit 451 is prescient in how it depicts a society that is saturated with video entertainments. The characters who inhabit Bradbury’s television-obsessed society are shallow, self-absorbed and incapable of sustained self-exploration. The novel rests somewhere between 1984 and Brave New World in suggesting that an authoritarian regime can get away with whatever it likes so long as the citizens are sufficiently entertained. 1984 suggests that books would need to be destroyed to keep people from caring. Fahrenheit 451 says that books can be destroyed precisely because no one cares.
The programming that occupies the 24/7 television schedule is predominantly soap operas and “Cops-style” reality shows.
Bradbury hated the idea of eBooks yet his own work, I think, argues favorably for eText. In the end, when print books have all but vanished, it becomes the life work of passionate people to preserve the content of the books by memorizing them. These volunteers become Books and travel the country, looking for people to inspire. From my reading, Bradbury suggests that print books are merely vessels for ideas. Print books are wonderfully efficient vessels in they way they transmit ideas from one mind to another across boundaries of geography and time. Still, books are most important in the way they transfer ideas, experience and knowledge from one person to another. Even after the books are all gone, there are still Books. The knowledge is protected and carried forward.
The closing metaphor of people as Books is a beautiful metaphor that touches on why I so enjoy being a librarian. We must not fetishize the object of books to the point that we loose sight of what books do for us. Books are tools. Books move ideas forward. The battle cry of Fahrenheit 451 is not simply to appreciate and protect the books. Bradbury urges us to carry worthy ideas forward by any means necessary.
I, like so many others, am grateful for the gift of Ray Bradbury’s work. Amid all the wonderful comment and reflection on Bradbury’s contributions, I like Andrew Chaikin’s comments on NPR’s Morning Edition the best. Chaikin says:
For anyone who longs to make their dreams take flight, Ray Bradbury had some very clear advice: Jump off the cliff, he said, and build your wings on the way down. He was telling us that every impossible dream that comes true begins with a leap of faith.
Bradbury died on Tuesday. He was 91.