This essay is dedicated to my father Frank (1923-2003), whose passion for reading inspired mine. Back when science fiction was frowned upon, he believed simply that "every kind of book could be a great book."
1. The Celestial Fire Escape
Early in the spring of 1950, Ray Bradbury, a budding author working at a coin-operated typewriter in the UCLA library, managed — in 49 hours, at 20 cents an hour — to write the first draft of a prophetic novel that is still very much with us, half a century later. Originally, he called it The Fire Man. We know it now by the far more poetic and memorable title he coined before the finished book went to press in 1953: Fahrenheit 451.
His tale's premise is ironic, given that he was writing it in a library. His hero, Montag, is a fireman of the future — a municipal worker whose job is to burn books. Reading is a rebellious and even dangerous activity in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as Bradbury envisioned them. (And here we are.) Reading leads to asking questions, and questions lead to thinking for oneself: a great crime in his nightmarish yet plausible future America. Books are torched like witches. The story hinges on Montag's gradual conversion, as he discovers, by inexorable degrees, the life-giving power of what he is burning. He grows curious; he steals a book and smuggles it home, though to do so is to risk prison. His supervisor, Beatty, guesses what he's done and slyly drops by the house to toy with him, cat-and-mouse, by way of instilling discipline:
"When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours, how did it come about, where, when?" Beatty asks rhetorically. He drily proceeds over the course of several pages to unfold a "history" of our times so foresightful as to be chilling. Writing and reading had their uses, long ago, he admits — but as the world filled up, photography, motion pictures, radio, television, quite naturally became the media through which people could best relate. "Things began to have mass," says Beatty. "And because they had mass, they became simpler." Collective activities (more sports, group spirit, group fun) quite naturally became the norm. So did the flat, wall-sized TVs that predominate in Montag's world, to say nothing of ours.
Such wizardries were far beyond the mass-perspectives of 1950, but Bradbury imagines our big plasma screens (and our addictions to them) with unnerving precision. "School is shortened," Beatty proclaims, "discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work." And let's not forget the specter of "political correctness:" Although he doesn't name it, Bradbury can see it coming. "Don't step on the toes of the dog lovers," says Beatty, "The cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico.... Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs?" (This is a sentence that puts Bradbury 14 years ahead of the U.S. Surgeon General, and it's followed by a couple that put him five decades ahead of CBS's 60 Minutes:) "The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator."
The terrible beauty of this futurama is that no evil system of government has arisen to wreak such havoc. Instead, Bradbury envisions a civilization capsized by an all-too human apathy, a culture-wide weakness for instant gratification coupled with a particularly American demon of cheerful conformity more forbidding and powerful than any dictatorship. Fox News, anyone?
The abiding relevance of Fahrenheit 451 is especially gratifying for this reader. I was born the month it was published; at age 15 it became one of the first novels I ever read purely for my own pleasure. Bradbury salved an itch for freedom in me, on several levels: his prose was extremely lyrical and vivid (the first I was ever conscious of, as such); he never burdened himself or his readers with tedious technical descriptions — instead, he appealed to the reader's own dawning poetic sense. His gadgets are alive with purpose. The midget earphones worn nightly by Montag's wife are "little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight ... an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk, coming in." The vacuum-powered subway aboard which Montag flees, stolen Bible in hand, rushes "through the dead cellars of town, jolting him."
Montag's solitary rebellion, his internal exile in an America, and world, hell-bent on destroying themselves, likewise appealed to the daydream-rebel in me — and I was far from alone. The book immediately found 50,000 readers when it came out in 1953, and has been embraced by more than five million since. Documentarian Michael Moore, roughly my age, must've roamed its dark fantasylands with as much gusto as I did, growing up in the 1960s. He's even made spoofing use of its title, for his own attack on willful American ignorance: Fahrenheit 911. This unattributed tribute has been, of course, a sore point with Bradbury himself — Moore didn't ask his permission. When it's suggested that the film's success may actually be a back-handed compliment to the mythic potency of his original title (451 degrees Fahrenheit being the temperature at which paper burns, while Moore jokes that "911" is the temperature "at which freedom burns"), Bradbury is neither amused nor consoled: "That's not a compliment, to steal from me." More galling is the simple confusion he fears it would cause for any future film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, such as the long dreamt-of passion project planned by writer-director Frank Darabont.
However these passing controversies play out, certainly his tale, his title and above all his creative influence are operating at full strength in today's world. A descendant of Poe and Twain, an heir and peer in the traditions of Wells, Verne, and Orwell, he has nevertheless made a distinct and original contribution. In so doing, he's not only boosted Moore's fortunes and made billions of fans and dollars available to the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but inspired countless writers, in all media. Any new book, play, or film about an American dystopia is inevitably in his debt, and this leads to a compelling question: why is fantasy such an effective tool for commenting on politics and the social scene?
"Because," Bradbury replies, "You pretend to talk about other people, when in reality you're talking about the very people who are reading you. Think of all the books that were secretly burned in Russia under Josef Stalin, their authors often murdered with them, leaving no record. Yet Fahrenheit 451 has always been extremely popular in Russia. This was so, even under Soviet rule. Because of the element of fantasy, the censors failed to realize I was talking about them."
And though a committed optimist when commenting on the United States ("We've always solved problems, and we still change governments peacefully"), in 1950 he was, as he told the Wall Street Journal in 2003, "Not trying to predict the future so much as prevent it." Television and radio — still newfangled gadgets in that technologically simpler time — were at best shadowy blessings, as he saw them. For Bradbury, "escape" is at its most celestial a tool for looking back at the world you've escaped, the better to see it. What he saw coming, in America as much as anywhere else, was a dreadful tendency to escape thinking for oneself, a mass exodus away from W.B. Yeats's great dictum that "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities."
2. Wars of the Worlds
My own was an American boyhood fed on fantasy, and cataclysm. If any one memory sums up where things stood, it's of myself in rural New Jersey at age nine, standing in the garage of our local Texaco station, staring at a glittery nude spread of Marilyn Monroe that somebody had posted on a crusty, overcrowded wall beside a fly-specked headline from 1938: MILLIONS FLEE MARTIAN PANIC. We're visiting a late fall Sunday in 1962: My Dad is outside, chatting with the mechanic; Marilyn has been dead for only two months, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which very nearly triggered the end of the world, has been over for just a week. My parents, sisters, and I fought this catastrophe off on our knees, praying the rosary night after night. Once, late, when we were the only ones awake, Dad warned me that I would have to be the man of the house if he was unlucky enough to be in Manhattan on business when the first missiles hit. This made me so sick with anxiety that, once the crisis was past and we were again briefly secure in the euphoria of having Kennedy as President, God watching over us, and the Moon as every kid's future destination, my father struck a kindlier attitude than he otherwise might have when he caught me staring at Marilyn. "Come away from there," he said evenly, stealing a good look for himself before we both obeyed the order.
"She sure was pretty," I said, hoping to keep the topic alive.
"That she was." Case closed.
"Hey Dad—" I pointed to the headline about MARTIAN PANIC. "Did you see that? That happened around here, it says."
On the way home, he regaled me with the saga of that long-ago night, when a man named Orson Welles staged a wild radio adaptation of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds (with artfully faked newscasts written by Howard Koch), and convinced millions of his listeners that Martians had not only landed in New Jersey, but were moving on Manhattan. "Half the country panicked, including your aunts Lilly and Margie," my Dad told me, laughing. He'd been an early and ideal Welles fan, and even helped the prank along, drily assuring his older sisters that the "news" they were hearing was real. They weren't hard to convince. All around their home in Flushing, New York, they could hear others who'd taken to the streets, running and shouting as nearly two million other people did, all across the United States.
"Did you think much about outer space when you were a kid, Dad?"
This was a ritual question; I asked it a lot. He patiently gave me the ritual answer: "Sure. Not the way you kids do. If you'd said back in the Depression that America would be going to the moon in 30 years, most people would've called you crazy. But we thought about it."
When I think of Ray Bradbury and his impact on my life, I recall this conversation — because my late father (born, like Bradbury, in the early 1920s) had been, surprisingly, as much nourished as I was by future-fantasies. It was he, a voracious reader, who steered me toward the comic strips Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, then still in syndication, which he'd read as a kid — at least, read when he wasn't devouring books, playing baseball, bumming cigarettes, or itching to rid the world of its dictators. One Christmas in the late 1960s, as a present to him and myself, I bought us both a deluxe volume of Buck Rogers comic strips, with a foreword by Bradbury. One phrase from that intro sticks with me to this day: Bradbury's Keatsian evocation of a rolled newspaper "kiting" onto the front porch of his boyhood home in the midwest.
Fantasy is, just as Bradbury says, a great creative strategy for writing about the contemporary world in an exciting disguise. Yet my long-ago talks with my father bespeak an even plainer, more basic purpose: Fantasy is a currency of exchange between generations. Toss my boyhood self into the time machine, ship me back to the 1920s, and I wonder if I could have carried on five minutes of conversation with my father as a boy. What do you say to a kid whose movies are silent, whose radio is a primitive form of TV-without-pictures, and who's too poor to even own a bicycle? We'd have stood there tongue-tied, until one of us brought up Buck Rogers. For that's the one thing we can be sure we share with each of our ancestors, all the way back to the trees: Dreams of the Future; the wish to fly, the craving to achieve super-powers. Motherhood, fatherhood, families, monuments, inventions as disparate as money and the wheel — each of these "futures" rises out of a primitive wish to amplify our lives beyond the vale of the one we know, and it is the visionary storyteller who sees such wishes and their eternities whole.
Small wonder that I tend to think of my life in the 1960s as "The Bradbury Era." It was a decade of unprecedented public fantasy — people were not just dreaming of the moon but visiting it. Stories of a tone and irony pioneered on paper by Bradbury in such books as The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles were dominating the airwaves under the guidance of such writers and impresarios as Rod Serling and Gene Rodenberry. The Cold War realms of science fiction produced polymaths (Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke), messianic messengers and hucksters (Frank Herbert, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard), satirical sharpshooters (Robert Sheckley, Harlan Ellison, Phillip K. Dick), and I sampled and enjoyed all of them — but there was only one poet in the mix, whose voice and inner eye could cause me to re-read him, and that was Bradbury.
If there's a danger in science fiction, it's that too much of it can bottle you in a false or at least overly-prolonged innocence. "America was never innocent," as James Ellroy has written: "We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets." In my experience, "innocence" is an agreed-upon pact. Even the nuns who taught at my school were fans of Marilyn Monroe, but because suicide was and is considered a hellbound offense in the Catholic church, the sisters in those "innocent" years preferred to refer to her death as "an overdose of sleeping pills" — as if such a heavenly creature could only die of excess dreaming. When I think back on all those naked Queens from Venus and Andromeda (their firm, trembling, rose-nippled "orbs" forever staring our heroes in the eye) in sci-fi pulp by authors whose names I no longer remember — I see that in my ripening brain they tended, at most, to only rather pallidly recall Marilyn floating gloriously above the words MARTIAN PANIC.
Significantly, Bradbury never caters to teenage lust in his fiction — ever. If he refers to "innocence" at all, he plays fair, evoking it as a remembered state. He doesn't dote on "escape," either. His goal is enchantment. He casts a spell as a storyteller that fulfills the Renaissance definition of art — "that which delights and instructs." When I ponder the spell Bradbury cast over me between the ages of twelve and seventeen, the reason I think immediately of my father speaking to me about outer space, about people, about world events, is because that is how Bradbury addresses every reader — with a fatherly clarity. He's instructive, not in the sense of Aesop's Fables, but in the freer, more profound sense of passing experience on, as my father did for me when evoking his boyhood in 1938. If Michael Moore felt this way when reading Fahrenheit 451 back in the '60s, then it's easy to see why he found it so hard to return Bradbury's calls: Dad is pissed.
I remember loaning my father The Illustrated Man and discussing with him at length a story in it, called "The Man" — in which travelers from Earth find themselves on a distant planet whose humanoid inhabitants are reckoning with a visitor we earthlings would recognize instantly as Jesus Christ. The idea of Jesus wandering the galaxies, saving the universe planet by planet, deeply tickled my father, as a still practicing Catholic. He found the notion validating of his faith. I was meanwhile wrestling my way free of Catholicism, and so instead found the idea liberating — that what we call "religion" is a phenomenon of nature, an evolutionary growth-spurt we need to take on, but then go beyond. This was not an argument I could ever hope to win with the old man. Yet Bradbury's story works either way. He's not preaching gospels, but encompassing mysteries.
3. The Fires This Time
The public political life of America in the 1960s was so fantastic, energetic, tragic, and bizarre that elements of future-fantasy penetrated even the most topical thrillers. Shortly after John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, I overheard my mother tell a neighbor over coffee about a very strange man, a Korean war veteran who'd been hypnotized by his mom and could be triggered to kill people — including his fiancé and her father, even the next President. "Hey, are you guys talking about Oswald?" I asked. My mother reacted irritably: "Don't eavesdrop." I was out of sight, slumped nearby in a deep-cushioned rocker, and must have intruded like a voice at a seance. "Your mother was talking about The Manchurian Candidate," my Dad explained later — a movie they'd been disturbed by, several months before JFK's assassination, but which now haunted them like an ignored prophecy. My father's way of wrestling with his disquiet was to re-read the original novel by Richard Condon (one JFK himself had speed-read with pleasure), and on which George Axelrod had based his superb screenplay. He then slipped it to me: "Do me a big favor and don't tell your mother you're reading it," he advised. "Let me tell her."
Novels do gain when you read them clandestinely: Call me Montag! My reading of the book was nevertheless positively colored by my mother's folkloric recounting of its contents. She was so profoundly affected by it that I mistook what she was telling our neighbor for actual gossip about living people — and so her "version" (or at least, the flow of images her words let loose in my imagination) freely interacted with Condon's original.
Bradbury is a loving treasurer of such phenomena. After Montag escapes the Fire Brigade, his post-literate society fries itself in a nuclear war no one around him has the words to comprehend, much less stop. He makes his lonely way to an encampment where the only survivors of the cataclysm are those few imaginative rebels who not only read but remember. As new monks copying texts in a fresh Dark Ages, they've skirted the ban on books by committing a wealth of them to memory: Homer, Ecclesiastes, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, you name them, one book to a person. Bradbury's vision thus radiantly culminates in an inverse bonfire, the phoenix-like retrieval of a world from its own ashes.
"But Fahrenheit 451 is not a political novel," he was quick to stress in our conversation. "It's a novel of ideas, of metaphors, philosophies and sociology. There are no politics in it whatsoever." I assure him I'm not using the word "politics" in a partisan way, but in its essence as a term for how people relate to each other in society. After all, it's fascinating how prophetic Fahrenheit 451 has proved to be. More so than even Orwell's "Big Brother," Bradbury's idea of a post-literate world, in which our creative heritage is killed off more by apathy than by suppression, has to a great degree come true. "That has come to pass," he says. "We've developed technologies that so bombard us. Look at your average television commercial — 60 images in a minute, and in some cases, 120 images. And a lot of movies are cut to the same awful principle. You're bombarded with data that in the end doesn't add up to much of anything. You're out in a rainfall of metaphors. You have the feeling of intelligence, but you're not intelligent at all."
In the late 1970s, when preparing the book for its 25th anniversary, he was appalled to discover that his publishers had, over the years, partly fulfilled the fireman's mandate outlined by Montag's captain Beatty. "Some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books," he has written, "fearful of contaminating the young, had bit by bit, censored some 75 different sections from the novel." Profanity, impolite references to God, stray specimens of coarse fireman-speak, all were cut from the text, to make it more acceptable to schools. With the support of a new editor, Bradbury had the book reset, "with all its hells and damns in place," but quite apart from the irony of seeing a book about censorship censored, he soon learned that others of his stories (along with those of Melville, Chekhov, you name them) were too often being re-edited as well, the better to fit into ever slimmer omnibus anthologies. "Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito — out!" Bradbury later wrote, still horrified. "Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like — in the finale — Edgar Guest." He concluded: "There is more than one way to burn a book."
At age 84, fresh out of the hospital, Bradbury is sharp, upbeat and loaded for bear — not to mention any bearish documentary-makers he wishes to chase from his properties. He has outlived Marguerite, his beloved wife of 55 years. "All the women in my life have either been English teachers, librarians, or booksellers," he says, when recalling what inspired him to create Montag: "My wife was a combination of all three." He still writes, despite being disabled by a stroke in 1999. He dictates stories daily over the phone to his daughter Alexandra, who (given this context) lives in the appropriately named city of Phoenix. In 2003, he brought out a collection of new stories, The Cat's Pajamas. A number of his works are in the studio pipelines — in addition to Fahrenheit 451, there are fresh remakes of The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man in the planning stages, as well as A Sound of Thunder, based on a great story from the mid-'50s, in which a time-traveling safari hunter alters the whole course of human history (up to and including a recent Presidential election) when he accidentally crushes a prehistoric butterfly.
Bradbury has always been sensitive to such swerves of history. His imagination is firmly grounded in them. Growing up, his family's means battered by the Great Depression, he reached manhood too poor to attend college. Instead he sold newspapers, and educated himself at the public library. Hitler was burning books in Berlin. Stalin was murdering writers in Russia, and ordering history rewritten. After serving in World War II, Bradbury viewed the holocaust led by Hitler and the ongoing Soviet ice age as being primarily born out of "mass" thinking. "I've never believed in groups," he has often said: "The bigger your group gets, the more your individual is stifled." As evil as Hitler or Stalin were individually, for Bradbury it was the majority who failed to assert their own individualities in resisting these monsters that made their tyrannies possible.
As such, books were his individual salvation, twice over. There were the books he read, unguided, letting passion lead him from Poe to Verne, from Shaw to Yeats, from Shakespeare to Melville. Then there were books he wrote as he climbed. By the time he was 29, haunting the stacks at UCLA and daydreaming Fahrenheit 451, a book of his own was already on its shelves: The Martian Chronicles (1950). The beauty of his prose won him a large following outside the circles that usually read fantasy and science fiction. (One admirer, film director John Huston, launched Bradbury's side-career as a screenwriter by inviting him to adapt Moby Dick — a movie I remember battling parental wrath to watch on TV, not for Huston, not for Melville or even Gregory Peck, but because I'd heard who wrote the script.) The infinite democracy that any library constitutes, by its very existence, moved Bradbury to ponder what would become of the world if it all were lost. The Nazis and the Soviets showed such destruction was possible. The burnings of both the Alexandria library as Mohammed's armies crossed Egypt, and the Aztec archives as Cortez took Mexico, proved the hard way that whole civilizations are destroyed with them. "What a tragedy for the world, the loss of all that data, all those wonderful books," he laments, just mentioning them.
If Bradbury could wave a wand and see any relatively neglected work of his be put on film, which would it be? "Dandelion Wine," he says, without hesitation — his exquisite recreation of the rural Illinois of his boyhood.
I knew it well, when young. My favorite passage to this day is the tense, tender encounter between a worldly spinster of 95 and a young bachelor of 27, who (through a twist that would have made O. Henry envious) become conscious that, in another life, they would have been the great loves of each other's lives. Long before they meet, he is bewitched by a photograph of her as a young beauty — and she in turn has known enough men to realize he is, or would be, the one. They're wonderfully at peace with this melancholy knowledge. "What do you think of the world," she asks him. "I don't know anything," he replies. This pleases her: "The beginning of wisdom, as they say. When you're 17, you know everything. When you're 27, if you still know everything, then you're still 17." (Reading this at 17, I was determined to take the advice. Re-reading it at 50, I cringe to realize how backward I managed to be at 27, even so.) A later passage in this exchange, written when Bradbury was not much older than 27, fills me with admiration at his prescience, when I think of what he made of his life, and what he has become, with age: "It's the privilege of old people to seem to know everything," the old woman warns the young man. "But it's an act and a mask. Between ourselves, we old ones wink at each other and smile, saying, 'How do you like my mask? Isn't life a play? Don't I play it well?'"
Bradbury laughs when I tell him I was frustrated when I first read Dandelion Wine, because I kept waiting in vain for the arrival of a spaceship. By the time I realized (owing to the beauty of the above scene) that there were to be no unearthly interventions of any kind, I was won by the pleasure of experiencing Bradbury's prismatic verbal sorcery applied to purely earthly matters — indeed, to life in a small town very much like the one I was living in. I came out of that book seeing my own world differently, seeing literature differently. From there it was, as Neil Armstrong might put it, but a small step and a giant leap to the terras firmas of Winesburg, Ohio, of Rabbit, Run, of Mr. Sammler's Planet — to the great adventure of that literature which doesn't fantasize, but imagines life.
"Fall in love and stay in love," says Bradbury, when I ask him what he would advise young writers haunting yet-to-be-built libraries, dreaming their own futures. "Love what you're doing, and do what you love. Nothing else. Don't try to be commercial. Don't try to make money. I never tried to do that, thank God. The money came later, as a reward for being a good guy! Fahrenheit 451 wasn't written for money. It was written because I had to write it - and the same goes for The Martian Chronicles, for everything. Whatever literature you love, write that. Whatever it is you love - make that what you do. Then you'll have a good life."
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