When my father took his leave of the family, he left behind a box of his books, and in doing so he gave me the gift of Ray Bradbury.
The summer that I began reading Bradbury, even the ordinary world became magical. I inhaled the books: “Something Wicked this Way Comes,” “Dandelion Wine,” “The Illustrated Man,” “The Martian Chronicles” and, of course, his master work, “Fahrenheit 451.”
His stories embraced a different reality, and they insulated me from the despair of a family that was breaking apart. It was the realization that stories could save readers that made me begin thinking about being a writer myself. I was able to see through my own heartbreak into the future, and I decided to write myself there.
My first story was about a lone survivor in a world that had been devastated. It was only later I realized I was writing about myself, about a girl who felt alone, who clung to fiction and to Bradbury’s books as if they were a life raft.
Bradbury tells the story of how, as a boy in 1932, he went to a country fair where a carnival entertainer named Mr. Electrico touched him on the nose with an electrified sword, made his hair stand on end and shouted “Live forever!”
He has certainly achieved eternal life through his books, which are destined to live on. But it’s beginning to seem as if he took the “live forever” command literally as well. On Monday Ray Bradbury turns 91, and his birthday is the perfect day to reflect on all he has given us.
The writer who says he was “raised in libraries” wrote a work of genius warning of a future in which books are so dangerous that they are burned. Where did he write it? In a library, of course, at UCLA, working on a rented typewriter.
His ambition was to be both a magician and a writer, and he managed to become both. He was the creative consultant on the United States Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, which I remember visiting in Queens, N.Y., as a 12-year-old so ready for the future that I could barely stand still in the present. He worked on the Spaceship Earth display at Epcot Center, Disney World and contributed to the conception of the Orbitron space ride at Euro-Disney France. His script “I Sing the Body Electric” was the 100th episode of the greatest television series in history, “The Twilight Zone.” He wrote the screenplay for Melville’s “Moby Dick,” directed by John Huston, and his own books were turned into brilliant movies, including “Fahrenheit 451,” directed by Francois Truffaut and starring Julie Christie and Oskar Werner, and “The Illustrated Man” starring Oscar winners Claire Bloom and Rod Steiger.
His honors, far too many to catalog, have included the National Book Foundation’s 2000 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and the National Medal of Arts in 2004. His work has appeared in the Best American Short Stories annual collection four times, and he has won the O. Henry Award, the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction Writers of American award and the PEN Center USA West Lifetime Achievement Award.
Born in 1920, he seemed always to know intrinsically that the future was not so far from the past, and that the past was a road map to the future. This has made him seem always ahead of his time. His 30 books and more than 600 short stories have influenced a generation of American fiction writers, including this one.
Christopher Isherwood once wrote that Bradbury had “a powerful and mysterious imagination that would undoubtedly earn the respect of Edgar Allan Poe.” Bradbury was brave enough to create his own genre. He understood that love was just as strong as any supernatural power, and that the timeless themes of good and evil resonate across generations.
The perfect summers and mystery-soaked autumns he has created are more memorable than the ones we experience in “real life,” and his gypsy witches and 12-year-old boys, tattooed men and fierce believers in truth will always be a part of American literature.
To you, Ray Bradbury, happy birthday, and many more.
Alice Hoffman is the author of many novels, including “Practical Magic” and “The Red Garden.” Her latest book, “The Dovekeepers,” will be published in October.