The death of Ray Bradbury has received a lot of coverage in the British media, including a fine eulogy by the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, who reports a writer friend of hers saying, “When I was 12 or 13, I read every single book [of his]—I sought them out. I read them cover to cover.” Atwood’s answer: “I thought that a lot of writers—and a lot of readers—had most likely had the same experience. And that they would be writers and readers of the most diverse kinds – poets and prose writers, all ages, all levels of brow, from low to high.”
Indeed. A friend, when I was 14 and he 13, reported the same interest, and it was at his urging that I myself first read Bradbury—Dandelion Wine—at that age. My friend’s garden of forking paths led him to meet Bradbury three times subsequently. He now owns about six thousand books, something that Bradbury would surely have appreciated had he known. What the Internet-hating Bradbury might not have appreciated is that the friend has his library catalogued on the LibraryThing web site.
My own garden of forking paths included a meeting with Bradbury when I was a junior in high school. Impressed by what I had read and heard, I had written him, asking him to give a talk to the high-school club of which I was president. To my delight, he wrote back proposing that the club come up to Hollywood, where he was lecturing, attend the lecture, and then meet him afterwards. At our meeting he blazed another path in front of me when we discussed Moby Dick, which we had just read, and for the movie of which he had written the screenplay. We wondered how he could stand the book, but he gently turned aside our criticism, saying he saw what we meant because he had had to read it many times before being able to write the screenplay, but that in spite of its difficulty it was a wonderful book and that we should consider coming back to it some time.
That path connected with my final year in university, when I decided thanks to Bradbury’s urging that I would take a graduate course in the novels of Herman Melville. (It was a hair-raising term: one course was Melville with seven novels, a novella, and a collection of short stories; and another, offered by the challenging but greatly admired Professor Pious, had a 3,500-page reading list. Further reading came in a course on “equality and the social order,” where I read parts of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice). Who could have imagined what happened? The professor teaching the Melville course uttered the unbelievable direction “Read Moby Dick over the weekend.” It is true that the weekend comprised the five days between the Thursday and Tuesday lessons, but still: was he crazy? It turned out that I couldn’t put the book down, finishing it the day before class. It remains one of my favorite books, and I have read it through seven times, though that makes me a beginner compared to a friend who has read it more than two dozen times. If I hadn’t taken Bradbury’s recommendation to heart, I would have missed experiencing Moby Dick as I should have.
Another forking path ended this semester. I taught Bradbury for the first time: Fahrenheit 451 to a class of 10th-graders. What struck me in the teaching was how insistent my students were that the novel was “about” censorship. Of course it is, in a way, but it is more “about” the impoverishment of life led in conditions where electronic “media” stop mediating life and actually become it. It is about life without books and without libraries. It is a life that Guy Montag, the hero, finally starts to recover from after he escapes the Mechanical Hound and experiences a night flight through a landscape that he can smell and hear—one free of the intrusive ads for Denham’s Dentifrice that had made his underground journey on the Vacuum Train so appalling.
“Underground journey” brings to mind a whole skein of forking paths in the main stacks of my college library. A bit like a Borgesian protagonist I would sometimes set off on a different sort of underground journey through the long narrow corridors, all silent, looking at the titles as they passed, or to the edge of the East Asian Library, further progress barred by book spines in Chinese characters and Hangul. I settled on the topic of a history paper for Professor Stern on a stroll through the stacks. (It was about the Kulturkampf and was not particularly good, but that was not the stacks’ fault.)
A last forking path leads from Bradbury, who couldn’t conceive of a world without libraries, to an article about a raft of new schools in Louisiana that have no libraries. The students in these schools spend their days in cubicles doing workbooks or in big rooms looking at “educational” DVDs. How big are the screens they view?