Ray Bradbury, the lyrical and evocative author who died Tuesday at age 91, was misunderstood both in his life and his work. But it never seemed to stop him from having fun.
Known as the science fiction writer who brought the geeky genre into the mainstream in publications like The Saturday Evening Post, he would proclaim (and rightly so) that he was, in fact, a fantasy writer. He said only his famed “Fahrenheit 451,” the story of a future in which people physically plug into their televisions for pleasure and books are banned and burned, was science fiction, because it could happen. His other works of speculative fiction, even “The Martian Chronicles,” were actually works of fantasy, along the lines of Greek myths, because they could never be.
And Bradbury claimed to be misunderstood even in the point he tried to make in “Fahrenheit 451.” Critics and teachers have claimed for years it was a book about the perils of an authoritarian government that would ban books. Internationally, oppressed peoples fighting such governments often clung to the novel as a kind of manifesto and talisman. But Bradbury said "Fahrenheit 451" was not about a horrid government willing to burn literature, but about the dangers of a society so entranced by the lazy pleasure of television that no one would care when the books were immolated.
Imagined to be a well-educated man, thanks to his smooth and knowledgeable writing style, Bradbury never attended college, didn’t much recommend it for others, and referred to himself as a “public library graduate.”
Assumed to be a man of science and adventure, Bradbury never even learned to drive. (Interestingly, his speculative-fiction co-legend, Isaac Asimov, refused to fly.)
Bradbury was, more than anything else, an adventurous and playful author, willing to try anything, and as entranced by his memories of the past as his dreams of the future. He penned the screenplay for the John Huston-directed movie classic “Moby Dick,” then he wrote an insightful and joyous book, “Green Shadows, White Whale,” about the year he spent in Ireland writing that screenplay. He wrote for television and the stage, and penned columns and published magazines, lectured often and in varied places, and by doing so helped create the science fiction-convention craze.
But what Bradbury did best, and what I treasured him for most, were his pitch-perfect journeys through childhood memory, fear and possibility that became classics like “Dandelion Wine” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”
He was an American original. He was a master of memories who tried to share visions of the future. He was joyous, and open, and most important, well worth reading.