Ray Bradbury, who died yesterday at 91, would be difficult to summarize even for those steeped in his work. The man was a Mount Vesuvius of short story writing fury for page, stage, and screen. He rang up a lot of misses and more hits than any one man could ever reasonably hope for.
His most famous novella (Daniel Flynn is right that Bradbury didn’t so much write “novels” as really long short stories), which everybody will be talking about today, was Fahrenheit 451. His best critics have argued, and Bradbury has affirmed, that it was not really a book about censorship. Sure, the story was ostensibly about book burning but it was really about the kind of society that would seek to abolish books.
People in the future world of Fahrenheit 451 burned books because they viewed all that the written word had given us — history, philosophy, theology, moral struggle — as a dangerous nuisance. As Fire Captain Beatty says almost nonchalantly, “Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it.” No book, no problem.
It occurs to me now, only after his death, that I should have written to Bradbury. I would have asked him what he thought of the argument that, in a society with the right legal protections and traditions, book burning might paradoxically promote free speech. At least then people might be moved to see what they’re missing.One wonders what he might have thought of that because, in his declining years, Bradbury was far more concerned that ours was becoming a society that was ceasing to care about books than that we might start firing up the incinerators. He worried that the Internet was cheapening the written word by making it something too disposable. Bradbury acquiesced to releasing Fahrenheit as an e-book only grudgingly, when faced with the painful alternative of letting his favorite creation go out of print.
You don’t have to agree with Bradbury’s consternation about where tech is taking us to think he was right to worry about the future of the book in America. It will have to compete with some new forms of entertainment, certainly, though in his better moments Bradbury would admit that cuts both ways. Books are the creative impetus behind many movies, for instance, which in turn stoke interest in the source material.
What I think Bradbury saw clearer than most is that the chief obstacle to books will always be an aggressive ignorance that abhors learning as too much of a bother. Every teacher has to confront this when the student asks, “Why do we have to learn this stuff?” Spread that notion around too far across the crust of society, said the famed short story writer, and you are going to have a problem. He was undeniably right about that.
So here’s to Ray Bradbury, who burned brighter and longer than most. May his better creations survive the conflagrations of time.