No doubt by now there are–and there will be–a whole bunch of articles dealing with the recent death–and long life–of Ray Bradbury. I feel strange writing about him. The fact is, I didn’t read very many of his works, and I was not a fanatical fan. When I first saw news of his death today, I was originally going to just leave a sad Facebook status message and leave it to better writers and fans than I to write the obituaries that he deserved.
But something stopped me. It was in high school. I was in a dystopian mindset, if not reading a lot of the fiction and literature around it. I don’t remember what Grade I was in or what class it was–I will assume English–but one of our required readings was the book Fahrenheit 451. I didn’t know what to think of it until I read the first sentence that started the entire story off. They tell you when you begin writing that you should always start strong–create a powerful or striking first sentence–and finish strong as well.
The protagonist Guy Montag was a fireman: in that he didn’t fire, but he fought with fire … on books. I never realized until now just how that works on so many different levels. It was a story set in a futuristic political dystopia where people were encouraged to watch television, medicate themselves, and never to read again. Books were burned when found and people possessing them were arrested and executed for having them. The slogan “fighting fire with fire” gains a whole other kind of horror when you think about it in the context of this cautionary tale: when you look at even the cultural resonance of what book-burning represents.
A lot of things happened in the course of that book, but two things stayed with me. The first was Captain Beatty, the Chief of Firemen and Montag’s boss. He was the antagonist of the story, but there were details about him that struck me. Beatty used to love books, but eventually got disillusioned by the realities they revealed. He became a fireman to destroy them and “protect others” from that disillusionment, from having their perfect ignorance destroyed yet when confronting a rebellious Montag he used that same knowledge he gained from his books to persuade the other. What struck me about that character was just how sad he really was: that despite his bitterness, he still loved those books and–in the end–he didn’t even stop Montag from burning him. He died the contradictory way he lived. Beatty was a tragic figure: representing ideals verses reality and the contradictions between them and that kind of character stuck with me for the rest of my life as a writer and as a human being.
The other element of the novel that really stuck with me was the idea of “the Book-People” memorizing and representing lost books: until society stopped burning them, or society itself ceased to exist. Think about it: each person has inside of their minds a book that they chose to memorize for the duty of maintaining the knowledge within it and restoring it one day. I can’t think of anything more noble or sacred than a duty like that. It made me think: if books were outlawed, which one would I want to embody and preserve? I think with me it would be Homer’s Odyssey: if only because I have read it several times over. I do wonder though who the “book-keeper” of Fahrenheit 451 would be and I hope that he, or she, would be a strong one.
Ray Bradbury was the one who made me ask myself that question. He brought me to that kind of dystopian world and presented me with something complex, yet when exposed to the temperature at which paper burns, very essential. I can summarize how he was one of the last Golden Age science-fiction writers still living, that he kept writing on for years, and that he had himself become a cultural icon, but the truth is, Ray Bradbury was important to me because if he had never written Fahrenheit 451, or I never read it, I would not be the same person or writer that I am today.
Rest in peace, Ray Bradbury. It was a pleasure to burn.