In the Big Read, the National Endowment for the Arts partners with libraries to revitalize reading in America by promoting a single book annually for citizens to read and discuss within their communities. This year’s book is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 — the temperature at which paper catches fire and burns. Bradbury’s story features Guy Montag, a fireman whose job is to start fires. He has enjoyed his job for 10 years, never questioning the joy of watching pages consumed by flames, never questioning anything until a 17-year-old girl hints about a past when people were not afraid. In Montag’s world, people caught with books go to jail, and firemen burn their houses. Even sadder, people haven’t cared about reading books for a long time. Everyone’s house has a room where all four walls reverberate with interactive TV shows, MTV-type images or never-ending color and sound. Outside the room, Montag’s wife wears a bud in her ear that pipes music into her brain.
No one takes time to think, read or converse. The government fights its sterile wars and keeps its citizens entertained, transfixed, uninformed, uncaring and “happy.” Montag slowly awakens to his subhuman state and rages against it, risking death. As contemporary as this book sounds, Ray Bradbury wrote it in 1950. In the book he predicted wall screen televisions, reality television, live broadcasts of fugitive chases, iPod “ear-bud” headphones, 24-hour banking machines and the demise of newspapers. Bradbury’s biographer, Sam Weller, is literary critic for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times and assistant professor of fiction at Columbia College. He says that although 50 percent of the population has never heard of Ray Bradbury, the writer is a “creator and visionary who, more than any other author, altered the fabric of popular culture.”
By age 12, Weller wanted to learn all he could about Bradbury’s ideas. He studied journalism in college and landed a job at the Chicago Tribune. When the newspaper’s Sunday magazine sent him to interview Bradbury in May of 2000, it was a serendipitous assignment for Weller. He learned that Bradbury, born in 1920 in Waukegan, Ill., had lived with his parents and older brother, Skip, near the shore of Lake Michigan. Ray’s mother, Esther, was passionate about movies. Every week they saw a film. When he was older, Ray swept and mopped theaters to get free tickets. Buck Rogers’ comic strips appeared when Bradbury was age 9. He collected them, and they propelled him into the future. “They changed my life,” he wrote.
A LOVE OF LIBRARIES
Living a quarter mile from the Carnegie Library, Ray and Skip ran to it every Monday night. Ray loved everything about the library: its grandeur, solitude and the mystery within endless books he found there. “I plunged in and I drowned,” he said. Weller says Bradbury read The Wizard of Oz, books on magic, demonology, dinosaurs and Nancy Drew mysteries — “furtively, as they were considered ‘girls’ books.” Bradbury learned that the Alexandrian Library in Greece had been torched by powerful Greek leaders who feared that the ideas contained in books might inflame the Greek people. He went to traveling carnivals to see “Mr. Electrico,” who subjected himself to 50,000 volts of electricity and tapped his energized sword on the shoulders of children in the front row. When tapping Bradbury, he said, “Live forever.” Two weeks later Ray started writing short stories. Fascinated by imaginary worlds and deeply concerned with humanity, he wrote stories about the human condition told through the prism of fantasy. But he realized his stories were weak and wrote them over and over to make them better. He read stories by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells and loved stories and poems by Edgar Allan Poe, “wonderful stories, all metaphors,” he says. His favorite book was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a story of love and redemption.
In 1934, his family moved to Los Angeles. His first week in Hollywood, he secured the autograph of W. C. Fields outside the gates of Paramount. This boy, in love with movies, was living in the midst of them. In high school, he’d “give up his lunch hour to go to the typing room and write stories,” writing, on average, a story a week. He sent them to top-tier New York magazines, which promptly rejected them. He “figured the editors didn’t know what they were doing.” During his senior year, he joined the local Science Fiction Society, attended the first meeting and “looked in the room at all these weird people.” But over the years, he found mentors in the society who helped him with his writing, including Forrest Ackerman, who later became literary agent to Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard. Ackerman asked the young Bradbury to help him create the magazine Imagination! After graduation, Ray landed a job selling the afternoon edition of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. His five-day-a-week job working from 4 to 6:30 p.m. gave him most of the day to write. In 1939, he registered at Los Angeles City College, but he never liked the grind of classes and detested early mornings. He dropped out, deciding instead to educate himself at the library, and went once a week to Central Library and twice to the local branch. He discovered Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, whose book taught him to write quickly and passionately, “trust his subconscious, and not overthink or second-guess his words.”
Bradbury then began his own magazine with start-up money from Forry Ackerman. In the summer of 1939, Ackerman loaned him more money to attend the science fiction convention, WorldCon, in New York City. Two thousand fans, writers, editors, artists and agents converged in the first event of its kind, a precursor to Star Trek, comic book, and fantasy conventions. It was the “dawn of the Golden Age of Science Fiction,” and Forry Ackerman was at the forefront. Ray Bradbury, Weller says, so often “alone in his imaginative world, was not feeling so alone any more.”
A GLIMPSE INTOTHE FUTURE
As Bradbury watched fireworks shoot into the darkness at the 1939 World’s Fair, he knew that in a matter of months, the United States would enter the war. He couldn’t join the military because he was legally blind, but he watched newsreels of Nazis marching across Europe, imprisoning people and throwing their books into fires. He began to write stories about social issues. On the bus ride back to California, he read Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. He would later copy Steinbeck’s bridge structure to write The Martian Chronicles (1950), using some chapters to tell the story alternating with chapters describing the conditions and landscape.
By 1945, Bradbury had established himself as a bright new star in pulp fiction, but he wanted to publish stories in mainstream publications. That summer, Mademoiselle, Charm, and Collier’s magazines published his stories. He had broken out of the pulps into the slicks. The stories, collectively, sold for $1,000. He was rich and on his way. His first book, Dark Carnival, was published in 1947. By 1950, he was living in L.A. in a tract home with his wife and two small children and searching for a quiet place to write. At the UCLA campus library, he found the basement typing room, where people fed dimes into Underwood typewriters for 30 minutes of typing. He went to the bank and returned with a bag of dimes. In nine days, plugging in $9.80 in dimes, he wroteFahrenheit 451.
Most magazines thought the book was too political, but Playboy ran the whole book in three issues. The book sold 5,000 copies its first year in print, but it sells more copies today than it has in 56 years. Many consider it Bradbury’s most important work. Publishers Weekly lists it as the ninth-bestselling classic in America. Sam Weller notes that besides writing 34 books, Bradbury has written “doorstop” collections of poetry and essays. At director John Huston’s request, he wrote the 1956 screenplay for Moby Dick. He also wrote for Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock’s television series. Bradbury wrote, produced and introduced 65 episodes of The Ray Bradbury Theatre for HBO beginning in 1985. His creativity extended to designing shopping areas and the U.S. Pavilion for the 1965 World’s Fair. Space Earth, the dome at Disney World’s Florida Epcot Center, is based on a Bradbury design — not bad for a boy raised in abject poverty whose education ended with high school.
A magnificent inclusion in Sam Weller’s compelling biography is the list of books and films that Ray Bradbury says shaped his imagination. Bradbury describes what each one meant to him. “It’s as if somehow Sam Weller slipped into my skin and my head and my heart,” says Bradbury, who still writes daily at age 88.
When you choose books to read this summer, don’t miss Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Sam Weller’sThe Bradbury Chronicles. Both are available at local libraries and bookstores. Nancy Glass West is author of Nine Days to Evil. Her book, Forever Fatal, an Aggie Mundeen mystery, comes out this summer. Send comments and Book Shelf information to firstname.lastname@example.org,email@example.com or to SAN ANTONIO WOMAN, 8603 Botts Lane, San Antonio, 78217.
Author: Nancy Glass West