I've been wanting to write this post for a while, since that day over a month ago now that we all learned that Ray Bradbury had died. There are probably thousands of obituaries written for him by now, and, as the world moves quickly, I am sure it has already moved on, but I wanted to add my reflections.
I began writing this post just after Bradbury’s death, where I sat on my parents' back porch in Florida. It was a fitting place for me to begin to write about an author that I have come to think of as a friend even if all I knew of him were his words. It's fitting because that is where I first read his work, and the book I want to talk about in particular is the first one that I read and that shaped the way I think more than I can say. It was also, in as true a sense as I can say this, a transformational spiritual experience for me. This book, which I read while still a teenager, was Fahrenheit 451.
Part of that trip home was to finally collect some things that have been sitting at my parents' house waiting for me. As part of this project my parents had set out some of these objects, especially my books. As I walked into the guest room and slung my bag from my shoulder onto the bed, I saw this book at the top of a pile on the nightstand. And so with Bradbury's death fresh in my mind, I picked the book up and turned through it's now yellowed pages scrawled with my underlinings and notes. On the flyleaf I found these equations (even then I thought about everything loosely in terms of mathematics):
Silence/thought = reading = value of life = feeling
Lack of thought/programmed thought = numbness = TV = lack of silence = selfishness (apathy) = the nothing(emptiness)
I suppose in my adolescent way, that sums up what I learned from this book: what the relationship is between thought and emotion and silence. And the place of reading within all of that. In the novel, society has turned on the written word in favor of banal television shows streamed across screens that take up entire walls (sound familiar?). Books are so despised and readers so mistrusted that the firemen in the story seek out houses with books and burn them to the ground. This is where the title comes from. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper burns. Some people choose to die with their books, standing with them in the midst of the flames. It’s a disturbing story…but a beautiful story of a fireman who, through a pixie-like young girl, discovers the power of books and so the power of learning and critical thought and discovery.
Many years after first reading this story, I now teach classes that engage popular culture. I am as likely to write here on this blog about Doctor Who as I am about Dante, and yet what I learned from this book still holds true for me. And I have come to think of reading as an action that can happen to any text, and I define text with large, broad strokes. TV itself is not the issue. I think this book actually taught me that. It is the unexamined consumption of it, of anything, the decided lack of responsibility. And what Bradbury's book is fundamentally about is responsibility and learning to take it and live up to it. As I paged through the text, I found this passage starred and I think it speaks to what I mean:
"...when we had all the books we needed, we still insisted on finding the ghost cliffs to jump off. But we do need a breather. We do need knowledge. And perhaps in a thousand years we might pick smaller cliffs to jump off. The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They're Ceasar's praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Ceasar, thou art mortal.’ Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for…are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.”
Those are the kind of words to change someone’s life. That changed the life of a lanky teenage girl, already in love with books and with the world, but who needed that added push to “do her own bit of saving” and to not just easily pin the saving to the books themselves.
I went on a date recently with a man who told me he hated to read. I knew immediately that would be our only date, but beyond the obvious concern about my deep love of books and writing, it spoke to something else. Because what I heard wasn’t “I hate reading” but “I hate thinking.” Maybe that’s not fair…or maybe it is. Reading goes beyond the level of hobby. Bradbury taught me that it goes to the level of humanity and of humanity being what it is called to be, being its best. We all need to be taught to read, and I mean that in its broad sense, and sadly, some of us never learn. Maybe that is what my date really meant: I have never really learned to read. I don’t mean that he couldn’t make out letters. I mean that he couldn’t see beyond them in whatever form they came in, to all that they point to, to all that they hold. But somehow books themselves are connected to that very broad sense of reading. Bradbury knew this as he made them terrifying and compelling all at once. And he told the world. And some of us will never, ever forget it.
Thank you, Ray. Rest in peace.