An Appreciation: Ray Bradbury: A voice shaped by L.A.
Ray Bradbury belonged to Los Angeles.
Like many with a similar tie to this city, he came from somewhere else — Waukegan, Ill. — but it was really after his family moved to California in 1934 that he came into his own.
Bradbury developed as a writer here, partly because of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, a phenomenal group that counted among its members Robert Heinlein and Forrest J. Ackerman and met at Clifton’s Cafeteria downtown. His love of literature blended well with a healthy fascination with pop culture, and that led him to imagine a style of science fiction not particularly weighted down with science, in which ordinary men and women went about the struggles of their lives.
But you can argue that one of the most important influences on him started when he entered into a lifelong relationship with the Los Angeles Public Library — and libraries in general, which he regarded, in a very real sense, as society’s soul.
“Libraries raised me,” he said in a 2009 interview while trying to raise money for a library in Ventura County. “I don’t believe in colleges and universities.… When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”
Bradbury wasn’t kidding; libraries were his education … and his muse. He wrote his breakthrough novel, 1953’s “Fahrenheit 451,” on a rental typewriter in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library, pumping in a dime for every half hour of typing. (The book cost him nine bucks and change to write.)
“Fahrenheit 451" highlighted a couple of Bradbury’s signature themes: the dangers of conformity and the importance of thinking for ourselves. The novel, which takes place in a dystopic future where books have been outlawed — the title refers to the temperature at which paper burns — remains stunning not just for its vividly imagined setting but also for the prescience with which Bradbury wrote.
Often regarded as an allegory on the dangers of censorship, it is, the author came to insist, more a lament for our indifference, an intellectual flattening that Bradbury blamed in large measure on entertainment culture that was running amok.
“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically,” he writes, “don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.… Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”
That’s a stirring passage, not least because of its prophetic sense of outrage. And yet, Bradbury insisted, it wasn’t enough to be angry; it was also necessary to turn the focus inward, at the way we are complicit in our fates.
“If you don’t read books, if you don’t buy them,” he told me in 2002, after “Fahrenheit 451" was selected for One Book, One City L.A., “then you don’t have to burn them. One by one, you eliminate various kinds of books from your society.”
Or, in the words of Montag, the book-burning fireman-turned-dissident at the center of “Fahrenheit 451": “We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren’t happy. Something’s missing. I looked around.”
That’s what Bradbury did until his death Tuesday at age 91, what all writers do (or at least the good ones); he looked around. Although he lived in Los Angeles for nearly 80 years, he rarely wrote about the place directly. And yet, it’s not hard to find whispers — the sense of exile that saturates “The Martian Chronicles,” the vast boulevards and social dislocation of “Fahrenheit 451" — in his work.
His 1953 story “The Pedestrian” may be his most explicit take on the city, as a writer takes a nighttime stroll in a sprawling megalopolis, only to be arrested for having set out on foot. The story was reportedly inspired by an incident in which Bradbury was stopped by an LAPD cruiser for taking a walk on Wilshire Boulevard — whether it’s true or apocryphal, the story can’t help but tell us something about how we live.
“Sometimes he would walk for hours and miles,” Bradbury writes, “and return at midnight to his house. And on his way he would see the cottages and homes with their dark windows, and it was not unequal to walking through a graveyard where only the faintest glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind the windows. Sudden gray phantoms seem to manifest upon inner room walls where a curtain was still undrawn against the light, or there were whisperings and murmurs where a window in a tomb-like building was still open.”
Those phantoms, of course, are the flickers of a million screens, and the tombs they illuminate are our own. It’s a cautionary tale, but at its heart lingers a simple message: Only connect.
“I don’t have a social agenda,” Bradbury once noted. “You have to keep that … out, or you’ll write a bad book. But I try to follow the advice of Albert Schweitzer: ‘Do something good, and someone may imitate it.’ If you write well, you can influence the world.”
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