Bradbury’s Dream

There’s a Ray Bradbury story—I can’t recall the title, but with the Internet that’s just a lame excuse—where explorers on Venus are being driven insane by the constant tapping of rain on their helmets.  They try to concentrate on discovery, but the distraction becomes too much for them.  Living in Pennsylvania has been a bit like that.  I grew up in the state and I knew it rained a lot.  Here in the eastern end we’ve hardly since the sun since March.  And when you’ve got a leak in your roof that only compounds the problem.  If I were weathering the Psalms, mine would be a lament, I’m afraid.  You see, the ground’s squishy around here.  Mud all over the place.  Rivers have been running so high that they’re thinking about changing their courses.  And still it rains.

There’s a lesson to be taken away from all this.  The fact that we use water for our own ends sometimes masks the fact that it’s extremely powerful.  Not tame.  The persistence of water to reach the lowest point contributes to erosion of mountains and valleys.  Its ease of transport which defines fluidity means that slowly, over time, all obstacles can be erased.  It’s a lesson in which we could stand to be schooled from time to time.  Rain is an artist, even if it’s making its way through the poorly done roofing job previous occupants put into place.  Would we want to live in a world without valleys and pleasant streams?  And even raging rivers?

There’s no denying that some of us are impacted by too much cloudiness.  When denied the sun it becomes easy to understand why so many ancient people worshipped it.  Around here the temperatures have plummeted with this current nor-easter and the heat kicked back on.  Still, it’s good to be reminded that mother nature’s in control.  Our high officials have decided global warming’s just alright with them, and we’re warned that things will grow much more erratic than this.  As I hear the rain tapping on my roof all day long, for days at a time, I think of Bradbury’s Venus.  Okay, so the story’s appropriately called “The Long Rain” (I looked it up).  Meanwhile tectonic forces beneath our feet are creating new mountains to add to the scene.  Nature is indeed an artist, whether or not our species is here to appreciate it.  If it is, it might help to bring an umbrella this time around.

The Persistence of Unity

I came across some Ray Bradbury books while unpacking.  I recently learned that Ray Bradbury was a Unitarian.  Now, the religion of a writer is only ever an ancillary bit of information, yet for someone of my combination of interests, it’s compelling intelligence.  Having grown up reading Bradbury, my own fiction often comes out seeming like an imitation of his.  I discovered him the way I found most of my early, influential writers—through Goodwill.  Living in a town with no bookstores, Goodwill was a great venue for walking out with a good handful of books for under a buck.  Since Mom was there looking for “practical” stuff, I hovered over the book tables and discovered a new world.  Then I grew up.

Embarrassed by my childish interests, I gave away or sold most of my Bradbury books after college.  I was more sophisticated than that now.  I read Greek and was soon to learn Hebrew.  Books were meant to have footnotes, and lots of them.  Who wants to be seen with Bradbury on their shelves?  But the indiscretion of youth does come back to haunt one.  About two decades later I began to yearn for something missing from my life.  Perhaps like a good Unitarian I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but I knew it was lacking.  Then my daughter was assigned Fahrenheit 451 for school reading.  I tried to read whatever she was assigned, and once I did memories of Bradbury flooded back.  I no longer had his books, but that could be remedied.

Occasionally I’m criticized for having too much in the way of books.  I’m sometimes asked if I will ever read some of them again.  The answer is how should I know?  I jettisoned Ray Bradbury with Episcopal pretention, only to find that behind the ceremonial there was a more unified version of things waiting.  A continuity with my younger self.  A lust for imagination.  A desire to remember what it was like to walk on Venus.  Or to see a man presciently covered with tattoos.  Or simply to thrill at the idea of October.  I began to acquire the old books again.  The newer editions lacked the visual resonance of the old, but the essence was still there.  Orthodoxy, I discovered, often isn’t true to life.  What’s true is what we discover early on.  Sophistication isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  And yes, I may well just read that again after all.

A Dusty Return

dustreturnedThe fiction author who had the most influence over my formative years was Ray Bradbury. Wait—let me qualify that a bit. I read of number of series aimed at juvenile, male interest (Doc Savage, Dark Shadows, and such) but these weren’t really intended as “literature.” I also read quite a bit of Poe, and his influence may certainly have rivaled Bradbury. The thing was the latter was still alive and producing books, mostly of short stories that tickled my imagination. Despite my reluctance to let books go, there have been several periods in my life where I’ve had to sell off my collection (this is the mindset of the non-affluent) and all of these childhood collections went, except for Poe. Now that I’m a more reflective adult, so I’m told, I have found a renewed interest in some childhood classics, and Ray Bradbury books are seldom expensive. When I found From the Dust Returned in a used book shop for a steal, I said “why not?”

This particular book came from long after I’d sold my Bradbury collection. I had never seen nor heard of it before. As an adult, interestingly, Bradbury doesn’t seem scary at all. From the Dust Returned, like many other Bradbury collections, is a somewhat novelized set of stories. This one is set in a haunted house where, in his usual descriptive style the storyteller offers artful prose and painterly writing, but no real scares. As we are coming upon Banned Book Week, however, I did note one of Bradbury’s common themes—the lack of belief leads to the death of characters. I’d read some of his stories where this took place before. Still, this time he goes a bit further. Tapping into things just ahead of the rest of us, as he had a talent for doing, one of his characters laments the loss of belief in religion as well as creepy, Addams-esque characters. People are no longer believing and it causes ghosts pain.

Part of Bradbury’s appeal is clearly to the young imagination. I’ve promiscuously read hundreds of authors since my last Bradbury book. My tastes have evolved. I find the same is true when I go back to the Dark Shadows books that were so cheaply had at my neighborhood Goodwill. I still go back to these early writers, however, and there is a kind of innocence about them. These were stories I’d read before I’d learned that Poe was certainly not as macabre as real life could be. “Marilyn Ross,” “Kenneth Robeson,” Edgar Allan Poe, and Ray Bradbury may not feature of lists of banned authors. Some of them aren’t even whom they seem to be. They did instill a childlike belief in reading, in my case. Even if they’re now on the bargain shelf they will still receive my admiration for starting a lifetime of reading.

British Libraries

Quintessentially intellectual, the mental image of the British goes, they are often the sophisticated, educated, literate, worldly individuals. I know I’m stereotyping, but play along a minute. Perhaps Americans and other colonials feel a sublimated respect for the nations that gave us our start, and even today the major academic publishers are British companies. Think about it. So when we ponder the United Kingdom, we conjure images of the pinnacle of urbane, cultured, society. Perhaps this is one reason that I decided to study in Edinburgh. One of my memories of being in that fantastic city is going to a library book sale. I’d never seen inoffensive old ladies throwing such hard elbows before. The hunger for books was palpable. So it is with dismay that I read John Harris’s Guardian piece, “In a country like Britain, obsessed with the now, libraries are a political battleground.” (Did I mention that Brits are also loquacious?) The article, however, has a disturbingly American feel to it. We live in the now, not in the past. Libraries (and museums) are the repositories of thousands of years of human wisdom and achievement. Who needs them?

Harris is concerned with the trend of libraries discarding books. After all, publishing is an industry, and if industry is anything it is about producing more. More books are now being published than have ever been since our human ancestors crawled from the primordial soup. Some are purely electronic, but as survey after survey shows, the majority of readers still appreciate a book in the hand. One might say that a book in the hand is worth two in the Kindle. But libraries, desperate for both funding and space, are resorting to throwing out books. They will be replaced with books, and who will miss them? I can’t help but think of Ray Bradbury. Do authors’ souls perish when their books are destroyed? Where will we go to find out, if our libraries have weeded their gardens too thoroughly? My biggest obstacle to continuing research as an independent scholar is the lack of a good university library. I agree with Harris, without our past, our now is but a passing fancy. When tomorrow becomes today, will we wake up and realize what we have discarded? Will we have to start from the beginning again?

Over the weekend I went to a local Barnes and Noble. I’ve never been a fan, but now that Borders is gone, B&N is the only show in town. (I visit the independent shops far more frequently, but this is winter and I don’t want to venture far.) I read about a newly released novel, still in hardback, and wanted to see if they had it. Amid the toys, videos, and puzzles, I stumbled upon a rack of books. New releases. The shelf of hardcovers wasn’t very large, so I stepped around back thinking there might be more. How naive I am. The store was nevertheless crowded. Those checking out weren’t buying books. The book bags, almost apologetically, bore quotes about how books change the world. I look down. I’ve got a puzzle in one hand and a game in the other. The world has only so much space. With what we choose to fill it says volumes about who we are. Our only hope is that our now contains those who, at least in the future, will live to read.

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Casing the Promised Land

In one of the great ironies of the English language “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing. Sometimes an extra syllable can make all the difference. “Ideas are incombustible,” wrote Ellen Hopkins in the final stanza of “Manifesto.” Unlike inflammable, that which is incombustible can’t be burned away. Most literally expressed in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, ideas are, however, endangered in a culture that claims to support them while secretly allowing them to be banned. Orwell called it doublespeak, and we all owe it to our heirs to fight it wherever we can. Sometimes the promised land may not be all that it seems. Can the brave truly be this afraid? Some politicians think “Born in the USA” is a complimentary song. Never has there been a better case for emphasizing literacy.

We fear the ideas our children might encounter, making them into the people they are meant to be. I’d like to return to an idea I broached at the beginning of this year’s Banned Book Week—the Bible has been a banned book. According to the antics of various preachers and vigilantes, so have been the Quran and the Book of Mormon. Destroying books or their authors, however, only creates martyrs. Until the world begins to understand that memes are more durable than genes we will fight our futile wars to drive the thoughts away. Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran tells of how some regimes want to control even our dreams. As if cutting the wings from angels were even possible. How do you physically cut an incorporeal being? Some may need to look “incorporeal” up in a dictionary.

I can’t remember when I started to read for fun, but I do know I haven’t been able to stop since. I have no idea how many books I’ve read, but it certainly comes out to more than the money I’ve ever been able to save. I write this with not an iota of regret. In my humble opinion people are products of the books they read, the songs they hear, the movies they watch. Ideas. Ideas permeate us and we, like sponges, absorb our nutrients from them. Inevitably we come to resemble the concepts we ingest. Ingesting concepts is perhaps the best way to think of Banned Book Week. Inflammable and flammable mean the same thing. Incombustible, however, is something completely different.

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Romney Wordsworth

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The Twilight Zone, one of my favorite fallbacks when I’m alone, doesn’t shy away from religion. I remember watching some of these moody tales in my childhood, already in reruns by the time I was old enough to appreciate them, and occasionally having my young mind shaken as a result. The frisson of having reality not being as it appeared kept me wanting to see more of Rod Serling’s universe, evaluating, re-evaluating, speculating. Often heavy with psychological realism, despite the obviously outlandish premises, these half-hour plays in black-and-white still have a strange power to alter a mood. I recently viewed the episode “The Obsolete Man,” which closed season two. Having been declared obsolete myself, more than once, I found this story particularly chilling. A totalitarian state declares what worthwhile occupations might be, and Romney Wordsworth, as a librarian, doesn’t hold one of them. With shades of both Orwell and Bradbury, Wordsworth is sentenced to death.

In startlingly strong language, Serling has Wordsworth declare that, despite the decision of the state, there is a God. He wants his death televised, to which the Chancellor is happy to acquiesce. Locking the Chancellor into his room where, Wordsworth reveals, a bomb is about to go off, he tests the steel of the state by accepting his fate. Wordsworth spends his last hour reading the Bible. The Chancellor sweats and chain smokes himself frantic, finally calling out, “In the name of God let me go!” Wordsworth, of course, does. Rod Serling was not known as a particularly religious man. Many of his characters are hard-bitten, tough-talking caricatures whose bravado masks a profound uncertainty about life. The writing may not be stellar, but the ideas are beyond the stars. Religion is very human.

Many of these Twilight Zone episodes I have never seen. Still, they do reveal a world of imagination that had a tremendous impact on Cold War America. Bomb shelters, revolutionaries, and invaders haunt the minds of not just those born in the fifties, but of every generation since. The state that protects us is the very one that breaks open our luggage to look at our unmentionables when we want to fly. To keep us safe from ourselves. A decade before Serling’s series, George Orwell was looking a quarter century ahead, calculating the trajectory. The good guys, it turns out, have the wherewithal to decide who is obsolete and what is subversive. And if you don’t see things their way, they’ll start talking impeachment or perhaps worse. Your next stop, the Twilight Zone.

Atomic Girls

GirlsofAtomicCityRay Bradbury. Ray Harryhausen. Radioactive dinosaur loose in Manhattan. What’s not to like? I was inspired to watch The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms again for a single line, where Dr. Nesbitt informs the marksman his grenade has “the only isotope of its kind this side of Oak Ridge.” You see, I had just finished reading Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. Atomic City, in this context, is Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a city built almost overnight with one objective: to produce uranium for the atomic bomb, then under development. The employees, many of them women, were not told the nature of their work and were not allowed to speak about the little they knew, putting many strains on marriages and human relationships. It is a captivating story, especially since Kiernan doesn’t pull any punches—the facility was in a segregated south, women scientists were belittled to their faces, and the end result was thousands of people incinerated in Japan. It is like the end of Eden, the loss of humanity’s innocence.

Growing up in the 1960s, I had heard of Oak Ridge. I knew it had something to do with nuclear stuff, but my understanding only went as far as the planetary model of the nucleus of an atom. I feared nuclear war. The height of that fear in the 1950s may have passed, but I was born just a month before the Cuban Missile Crisis began and all through the Reagan era that veiled threat of total, mutual annihilation hung heavily in the air. The religious had claimed God had created all this, but human hubris threatened to erase it all. On the eve of a friend’s wedding I sat across the Susquehanna River, eyeing Three Mile Island for the first time. Just six years earlier even those of us hundreds of miles to the northwest wondered if we would succumb to its radioactive glow. The power of the atom, as Kiernan demonstrates, was considered to be the basic power of the universe. And it was not divine.

When the war was over, a symbol of peace was erected at Oak Ridge. The International Friendship Bell was challenged as recently as 1998 by a local claiming that ringing the bell endorsed Buddhism, and it was therefore a religious symbol that had no business in a public place. For those who believe, ringing the bell is a form of Buddhist prayer. For others, it is a sign of goodwill between nations that have put their differences to rest. It is easy, sixty years after the release of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, to laugh smugly at Harryhausen’s famed stop-motion animation and the incessant worry about atomic fallout. But near the beginning of the movie, George Ritchie says of the atomic blast they’ve been monitoring, “You know, every time one of those things goes off, I feel as if I was helping to write the first chapter of a new Genesis.” Indeed, at least as far as chapter three. With the dawn of the atomic age, we had outgrown our need for the final chapters of Revelation as well.