For Illustration Purposes

With the non-essential stores closed, my daughter asked me the other day “does that mean bookstores?”  Sadly, yes.  More weekends than not I spend some time in a bookstore.  Fortunately we are well stocked for an apocalypse, book wise.  Lately I’ve been on a kick of reading short stories.  I’ve certainly written enough of them to fill a book or two, and it’s nice to start something you can finish in one sitting.  I just finished reading, or perhaps re-reading Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man.  I say “perhaps re-reading” because I know I read many of the stories in the edition of the book I bought as a tween.  Some of the tales I didn’t recall at all, making me think I was reading selectively in those days.  That’s the nice thing about story collections: you don’t have to worry about continuity.

That having been said, the conceit of the illustrated man himself is that of a framing device.  His tattooed body is the canvas on which all of these tales are painted.  A surprising number of them are religious in theme.  Many of them take place on Mars.  Rockets are ubiquitous.  As a child I hadn’t realized that many of Bradbury’s stories were published in the late forties and in the fifties.  They still felt futuristic to me, having grown up in a small town with very little exposure to technological developments.  Reading many of the tales as an adult, I was surprised at how much they influenced my own fiction writing style.  I must’ve read a lot more of them when I was younger than I recall.

My tweenage years were long enough ago now that memories slip into one another.  I can’t remember when this or that happened, especially as regards reading.  When did I first read about the incessant rain on Venus?  Or about the writers living on Mars dying out as their books are destroyed?  Looking back over my own fictional work I see Bradbury’s fingerprints everywhere.  Bradbury couldn’t afford to attend college, so he did what he knew—he wrote.  Of course, back in those days publishers and agents weren’t dealing with the volume they face these days.  The internet has made writers of us all.  And I have to admit that some of the stories in The Illustrated Man disappointed me.  They didn’t reach the level of either depth or insight that I had recalled.  Overall, however, the impression was good, if nostalgic.  As the days become a long series of interconnected hours of sitting in the house, it’s a real gift to have short stories to punctuate the days.

The Tube

I’m sitting in a medical facility waiting room.  I’m not afraid of dying, but medical stuff terrifies me.  To calm me down, inane daytime television is on.  I may be one of the very few who brings a book to such places, but I can’t read with the insipid chatter going on.  This time, since I’m waiting for someone else, I brought my laptop.  Nevertheless, I can’t help but think of Ray Bradbury at times like this.  Many people think Fahrenheit 451 is about burning books.  Bradbury did write about burning books in his short stories, and it does happen in Fahrenheit 451, but that’s not what the book is about.  In interviews he said that he intended, as is pretty obvious from a straightforward reading of the text, to warn about the invasive nature of television.  It was, metaphorically, burning books.

Waiting rooms always bring that to mind.  Not only that, but it’s Valentine’s Day and all the talk shows are going on about how it’s “the day of love” (every day should be).  It’s not a day off work; I had to cash in a sick day to be here.  The word “holiday” keeps cropping up on the television, to which I have my back. Ever since leaving Nashotah House I haven’t watched television.  On our recent move to Pennsylvania our cable company didn’t offer a non-television option.  It was unthinkable.  We pay for something we don’t use.  Burning books.  I don’t have time for television.  I see shows that have proven their worth via DVD well after they’re off the air.  And that only when I can read or write no more in a day.  I guess I’m a Bradbury disciple.

Like any disciple, I have changed certain teachings of my leader.  Bradburyism is a religion objecting to ubiquitous television.  At the same time, I grew up watching the tube, and to this day I’ll stop just about anything to watch DVDs of The Twilight Zone.  Rod Serling, however, selected stories and teleplays that were well written.  This was a literate show.  Besides, my daily life often feels like the Twilight Zone.  Like Valentine’s Day in a waiting room.  The book beside me remains unopened.  It’s the same when I take the car to the garage, or go in for an oil change.  You can’t escape it, even though everyone else is paying attention to their phones.  How long until we learn to switch off?  Of course, medical waiting rooms are the places where I may need brainless distraction the most.

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

VFD

It’s been a few years since I read Fahrenheit 451, the classic novel by Ray Bradbury.  Like so many dystopias, it’s seen a resurgence of interest since 45 was elected.  (I can’t help but notice the shared digits.)  Bradbury was a writer of his time.  So much, I suppose, could be said of all of us who write—how can we be anything else?  Still, it’s difficult not to see that his fear was of television decimating reading.  And intelligence.  We’ve got the internet now, so the effect has been magnified a bit.  The tale, despited being dated, is poignant.  The more electronic we become the more of what used to be termed “real life” we miss.  At this reading it was clear that The Book of Eli was largely based on the last pages.

When Montag confesses to his wife that he’s been secreting books away, and she finds him insane for doing so, he takes the book in his hand to a former acquaintance, Faber.  It turns out that the book is the Bible, perhaps the last in existence (see what I mean?).  On the subway ride he tries to memorize the Good Book.  Now, I’ve been on the New York City subway, and I know the delays can be long, but there’s an error of scale here.  The Bible’s a big book.  Still, he gets pieces of it down.  Now, in the 1950s, when Fahrenheit 451 was published, the Bible was known for its liberating qualities rather than its darker side.  Also the atomic end of World War II was clearly still a painful living memory.  The two may not be unrelated.

Given the age of the story, I won’t worry about spoilers.  In case, however, it’s on your list proceed with caution.  The war that’s been building the entire story takes place the night of Montag’s escape.  Along with the intellectuals forced out of the cities, he becomes part of a human library.  Each person is, through a memory recovery technique, capable of recalling the books they’ve read.  Montag becomes, appropriately enough, Ecclesiastes.  Perhaps the least evangelical book in the Bible, along with Job (with which most evangelicals find themselves cheering on Job’s friends), Qohelet has long been one of my favorites.  It’s an honest book.  The same can be said for Bradbury’s novel.  Primarily a short story writer, Bradbury didn’t sustain the narrative to novel length very often.  But when he did he fashioned a book that, particularly now, needs to be read.

Religion, He Wrote

A friend recently sent me the New York Times obituary for Carol Serling, the wife of one of my heroes, Rod Serling.  Perhaps it’s a personal weakness, but I often wonder about the religion of my favorite writers.  More often than not I discover that they’re affiliated with tolerant faiths, sometimes unattached to any specific tradition.  Rod Serling grew up Jewish but became a Unitarian-Universalist by marriage, and—it doesn’t stretch the imagination—remained one by conviction.  I’ve read a bit about the UU tradition, and it is based primarily on values rather than beliefs.  In fact, the idea that religion is a matter of what you believe is only one way of defining it.  Historically one’s religion was a matter of what one did, not necessarily what she or he believed.

Authors that I read often deal with religious issues.  It’s important to confess that I don’t select fiction based on its having religious themes.  Anyone who’s read more than one or two of my posts will know my reading is eclectic and many of the books represented here have shown up because of wildly different circumstances.  Reading challenges, friends’ recommendations, and preparations for educational presentations are often driving forces.  In the fictional realm I’m drawn to the speculative, but also often to the catch-all category called “literary.”  Stories that feel authentic in either category have an element of religion in them.  Life portrayed without it doesn’t seem believable.  I’ve been re-reading some Ray Bradbury.  There’s often suggestive material there.

Raised a Baptist, Bradbury is often also claimed as a Unitarian-Universalist.  Apparently he didn’t like the label, but his behavior was more a selection of tenets that he found compelling from various religions.  All of this may sound strange in a context where “religion” is increasingly a dirty word.  (To be honest, it has been doing much to earn such a reputation.)  Still, it is a very deep part of being human.  Rod Serling’s stories advocated fair treatment of all people and often his sense of justice landed him in trouble with advertisers for The Twilight Zone.  Religions comfortable with maintaining prejudice, or turning a blind eye to lawbreaking in the name of false virtue would certainly not understand refusing to take money from questionable sources.  I suppose there’s a reason I enjoy the stories from the days when America still had a conscience.  The legacies of such writers, it is to be hoped, will outlast what passes for religion these days. 

Any other gods before me…

Sci-Fi Culture

I’ve recently taken up rereading Ray Bradbury stories from my childhood.  Bradbury’s difficult to classify, but he’s often genrefied as science fiction, but many of his stories are horror and fantasy related, or just plain stories.  One aspect upon which future readers, I believe, may pick up—and this isn’t just a Bradbury thing—is how people were projected into the future with the culture of the past remaining intact.  Things like characters smoking in the most unlikely of places.  I picked up on that the first time I watched Alien.  In space, where no-one can hear you scream, air has got to be a precious commodity.  And yet there they are, smoking in space.  Same thing with Bradbury.  The culture of the 1940s and ‘50s when he was writing such stories simply couldn’t see beyond the time when culture was what everyone did.  It seems weird in 2019.  How much weirder it will look in 2050 (presuming we make it that far).

There’s almost a “gee-whiz” quality to such stories of the past.  People in the future, and in space, drink coffee and wear blue jeans.  They may have more technological homes, but their home lives reflect the forties and fifties as well.  The women are housewives and the husbands go to the office, or outer space, to work.  I suppose cultural verisimilitude was a different thing back then.  Did nobody really consider that patriarchy might be a problem?  Did everyone think clothing would never really change?  And not a hint that vegetarianism might catch on.  What makes the future the future in these stories is tech.

These days we’re loaded with tech.  In some ways we have more of it on our person at any given moment than all of Bradbury’s space-workers ever had.  In one of his stories a character was born in the impossibly far year of 1993.  I used to watch a show called Space 1999.  We haven’t colonized the moon yet (we may be working on it, but considering how long things like an obvious impeachment take, I wouldn’t hold my breath).  Speaking of holding breath, I’m pretty sure some of the characters were smoking on Moonbase Alpha.  Or my memory is cloudy.  (The earlier, and more lasting series Star Trek pretty much avoided several earth-bound habits, although Captain Kirk was pretty fearless when it came to the possibilities of space-spread STDs.)  I read Bradbury as a throwback to my childhood.  His stories have both an prescience and naivity that make them compelling period pieces.  From our current standpoint, one wonders if there will be any culture left at all in the future.  Perhaps we should enjoy what we have, while we still can.

Dayglow

Yellow and orange leaves on a damp pavement.  A sky claustrophobically occluded with gray clouds.  A decided chill in the air.  All you have to do is add a few pumpkins and the feeling of October is complete.  I don’t know why this particular image of the change of seasons grips me the way it does.  As a homeowner I don’t want to turn the heat on too soon because the gas bills will jet up and will stay that way for seven or eight months.  I get depressed when skys are cloudy for days at a time.  Around here the leaves have only just begun to change.  In other words, there’s a decided difference between the way I imagine October and the way that it feels on the ground.  In my imagination there are Ray Bradbury titles, The October Country, The Autumn People, but here in the physical world I shiver and add another layer.

Over the past several weeks I’ve been struggling to figure out why horror appeals to me.  It seems to be the Poe-esque mood rather than any startles or gore.  The sense of mystery that hangs in the air when you simply don’t know what to expect.  Will it be a warm, summer-like day or will it be rainy and raw, a day when you wouldn’t venture outside without the necessity to do so?  October is like that.  It is changeable.  Beginning in late September it is dark longer than it is light and for much of the rest of the year I will go to bed when it’s dark outside.  It’s always still dark when I awake.  Is it any wonder that October has its hooks in me?

Short stories, of which I’ve had about twenty published, seem to be the best way to capture this mood.  You see, it isn’t a sustained feeling.  It’s piecemeal like that extra quilt you throw on your bed at night.  The urge to hibernate creeps in, but capitalism doesn’t allow for that.  October is an artist, and I’m just the guy wandering the galley, pausing before each painting.  This feeling only comes after summer, and it is fleeting.  In November the leaves will be down and the cold will settle in quite earnestly.  The candles we lit for Halloween will be our guide-lights to those we hold out to Christmas when the dayglow will begin to return at an hour that reminds us change is the only thing that’s permanent.  And in this there’s a profound hope.

Significant Places

Upstate New York may not get the attention that the state’s largest city does, but it is a place of wonder.  One of those sources of significance is the unique blend of individuals who’ve impacted both American culture, and, in turn, my life, that called this region home.  It’s difficult to describe what I’m feeling as I’m standing next to Rod Serling’s grave.  This is a man who held a profound influence over my outlook by letting his imagination go where it would.  It’s more than the Twilight Zone—although its theme is one of the ringtones on my phone—it’s the sense that I somehow knew this man I never met.  It’s also the sense that his gravesite is so humble, in a rural area outside a small town, the kind that often featured in the stories he wrote and presented.  It’s the sense of connection.

As I young person I practiced writing short stories based on the mood set by the Twilight Zone, with a dash of Ray Bradbury thrown in.  From a small town myself, imagination was my means of enlarging my world.  We didn’t have the money to go many places but the magic box in our living room could take me to weird places alive with transcendence.  The results were beyond price and there was something deep and liberating here, even for a kid whose religion said it was all nonsense.  Even religion requires escaping sometimes.  I know the publishing world has moved beyond what was fashionable in the sixties and seventies, but that can’t dislodge the shard in my chest right now.  If there are spirits in cemeteries, they are here.

Some time ago I began, as I had time, uploading my photos of famous writers’ graves (along with those of other recognized names) on Pinterest.  On the way to Interlaken, I wondered aloud why nobody seemed to show an interest.  I find cemeteries peaceful places, and sacred spaces are those where people significant to us have been, in some form, at some time.  I know Rod Serling loved upstate New York.  It was his escape from the busy life of a writer whose cachet was marketable back in the days when anything seemed possible.  Retreats are those places we go to restore ourselves when work simply won’t allow creative people to have unstructured time.  I wasn’t expecting a huge mausoleum or towering monument here.  Others have found their way to this place nevertheless.  I am in a sacred place and the quiet here is kind of a prayer.

The Zone

My youth—who am I kidding?—my life has been a search for father figures.  Since I grew up with television, many of them came from the tube.  The professor from Gilligan’s Island, Mr. Rogers, Barnabas Collins, and Rod Serling.  Serling was like the father I couldn’t remember in that he was always smoking.  But unlike my father, Serling had an imagination in sync with mine.  The Twilight Zone was in reruns by the time I caught up, but it gave me an odd kind of happiness.  The sort that you had as a kid after the bath was over and you were wrapped up snuggly and warm in a bathrobe, and you got to watch one of your favorite shows before going to bed.  I discovered Serling as a writer when I was in Junior High School.  He was right up there next to Ray Bradbury, in my book.

I have to admit to feeling anxious as I read Anne Serling’s As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling.  You see, she actually was his child and I’m afraid of learning too much about those I put on my personal pedestals.  Her book, however, didn’t disappoint.  Serling lived a writer’s life, something I’ve coveted since I was a kid.  If I couldn’t have a father, at least I could write about life as I saw it.  I still write fiction inspired by, among others, Rod Serling.  Spending much of my time in Binghamton and Ithaca for my own family reasons, I was only obliquely aware of how much I was traversing the region Serling considered home.  As I read his daughter’s autobiography—or is it a biography?  Who can tell the difference?—I was inexorably drawn in.  Fathers and daughters can be the best of friends.

Sometimes I wonder if those who know writers the best are their true fans.  I don’t mean groupies or the like, but rather those whose lives have been transformed by their words.  I’m reminded of Evermore, written by a relative of Edgar Allan Poe.  Family, it is true, see a side of a person that the reader does not.  But who are we, really?  Those of us who write may be saying more in our fiction than we care to admit even to those who know us well.  Rod Serling recognized dimensions well, I suspect.  A writer’s life requires sacrifice and keeping things hidden.  Anne Serling’s book is a gift to those who write, even if it is about someone else’s father.

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.