Ray Bradbury and the threat to reading

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Like millions of other kids in the 1950s and ’60s, I didn’t just read Ray Bradbury’s books, I stepped into the worlds they created.

I lived on Mars as I read The Martian Chronicles. I watched the pictures on the body of The Illustrated Man. I plugged myself into I Sing the Body Electric.

I’m not sure whether at age 10 I always quite grasped the critiques of capitalism and racism in some of Bradbury’s work. I lived in his exuberant wonder.

Around 1963 I tried to order Fahrenheit 451 from an ad for science-fiction books in Boys’ Life. Instead of Fahrenheit 451 I received an apologetic letter from the publisher telling me I was too young to read it. The coupon from Boys’ Life must have given me away.

Though somewhat flustered and embarrassed by the letter, I decided to risk checking the book out from the library. Nobody tried to stop me. Nothing in the book seemed improper to my 11-year-old mind. I did sense the irony of having been denied a book about book-burning.

When Bradbury died this week at age 91, the Associated Press noted in its obituary that The Martian Chronicles also includes the theme of books banned for being too fantastic. Fahrenheit 451 took the theme from banning to burning.

But as LA Weekly reported in 2007, Bradbury stoutly denied that Fahrenheit 451 was about government censorship. It was, among other things, about people’s television-induced loss of interest in reading, in anything that could not be taken in at a glance. One thinks today of the blips of comment that pass for communication on e-mail, Twitter and Facebook. Bradbury foresaw and condemned the short attention span, the unwillingness or inability to concentrate on anything for more than a moment. I hope you’re still reading this.

In Fahrenheit 451, the degradation of books is caused by a society grown so diverse with grievances that offensive material is stripped out of books. Eventually all books become so bland that no one reads them. That’s when the government brings in the firemen.

“It was a book based on real facts and also on my hatred for people who burn books,” Bradbury told the Associated Press in 2002.

We should celebrate — and read — Ray Bradbury as a great and prophetic writer who saw into the depths of space, the future and the strange worlds of the human heart. For him, the freedom to read was not to be taken for granted. And the biggest threat to that freedom just might be ourselves.

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