Yesterday was the birthday of renouned American author, Ray Bradbury. Three more years and we can celebrate his 100th birthday. But even in 2017, Bradbury’s birthday is special to me because his stories provided the kick-in-the-pants I needed to take my writing seriously.
Before entering high school, my family and I made a trip to the bookstore. Barnes and Noble was having a sale on its classics (when is it not?) and I picked out two with ease. But when searching for a third (buy two get one), I was at a loss.
“How about this one?” my mom asked, holding up the book I found least attractive. It was red with planets orbiting on it. Ew, Sci-fi.
“It’s good!” she persisted. “When I was teaching English, I would read aloud a short story from this book every Friday!”
Oh great, I was thinking. Science fiction and short stories.
Poor little me. I was so fixated on reading thick Austen or Bronte novels in an effort to seem impressive that I felt I was above fanciful scribblings about space.
The irony…now I cannot help writing such scribblings myself.
Not wanting to argue any longer and urged on my my brother, who was worried we would miss our movie, I surrendered. I purchased my selections and let the Ray Bradbury collection thud like a rocket into the bag, forcing its way between the indignant British classics.
That night, after the movie, I lay awake. Perhaps the movie had not satisfied my desire for a good story. Perhaps I had just eaten too many candies during it. For whatever reason, though, I found myself flipping open the red tome.
“Let’s see if you live up to your reviews,” I might have whispered into its crisp pages, which fell open with all the grace and crunch of snowflakes.
Minutes later, I was buried in an avalanche of words that fell so beautifully from Bradbury’s mind to pen to page that I could not dig my way back out had Jane Austen herself called for me.
Hours later, I was several stories in and near tears with that delight that only true bookworms know- the inexplicable thrill of having found writing that transcends mere ink and paper, writing that is instead made of the same substance as dreams.
I devoured The Illustrated Man and made dessert of The Golden Apples of the Sun. It was with great self-control that I rationed out The Martian Chronicles for a later year when I was in need of escape.
And, as this diet of “words, words, words” digested, it fueled ideas.
And soon, these ideas begged for a form. Or did they beget a form? (Alas, Plato…your philosophy is not wanted just now.)
As my ideas grew on those of Bradbury, I sought advice on how to bring them from the abstract brainstorm into croncrete being.
“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”
Bradbury’s words came to me (possibly via Pinterest) and away I flew.
I definitely did not write 52 stories.
I definitely did not write more than a couple semi-decent ones.
But I was writing and that was enough.
(Not that I hadn’t been writing before. My memory boxes are stuffed full of the “newspapers” written in crayon and “manuscripts” typed on the family computer with my mom as my editor.)
But now something clicked within me and I could not seem to stop writing. This blog testifies to that; not every post gets likes, some poems are feeble in hindsight, and only a few stories turn out to be keepers. But just like Bradbury’s short stories, it is impossible to have a year’s worth of bad posts, right?
Don’t answer that. 😉
Back to Bradbury. He inspired me to write (especially speculative fiction) and continues to make me fall more and more in love with literature every time I read his writing.
For instance, just a few days ago I finished reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and then watched the 1956 movie for which Bradbury wrote the screenplay. It was quite possibly the most flawless book-to-screen transition yet. Bradbury perfectly portrayed the central themes of MD in under two hours. (Whereas the book took…well, a long time, to read.)
He also wrote Leviathan 99, which is dedicated to Melville and is essentially Moby Dick in space. This stunning novella portrays the same themes of MD in a completely different setting, yet does so with such mastery that I believe Melville would be proud. (Also, pro-tip: if you don’t have time to read MB, just read Leviathan 99.)
Reading Leviathan 99, I was filled with the same joy and wonder that I felt when first reading “The Veldt,” the first story in The Illustrated Man. Reader, do your mind a favor and listen when your English teacher mother encourages you to purchase a Ray Bradbury collection.
Although Ray Bradbury is sadly no longer with us in body, we are still able to celebrate his legacy on his birthday. He has left his readers deeper in love with literature and filled with awe at the power of writing.
Dystopian novels have been “in” for several years now. The Hunger Games and Divergent were the most popular reads of my high school days. Brave New World, 1984, and Anthem were on the AP reading lists. I continue to devour Ray Bradbury’s work.
However, we forget the purpose of dystopian fiction, which is to warn and protect us from creating such futures in reality. Dystopian fiction remains fiction only so long as we read and heed these books as warnings, not merely as disturbingly entertaining tales.
While we continue to be shocked by the dystopian stories we read, we are at the same time allowing ourselves to fall into them. By labelling them as “fiction” we are separating them from our reality and from our future. We feel terror and disgust as we read them, but can easily brush them aside as “mere stories” once we close the covers.
Ray Bradbury once said,
“You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
As much as I’d like to say Bradbury is inerrant, I would like to alter this statement ever so slightly for the sake of clarity:
“You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop believing them.”
As soon as we assure ourselves that dystopian societies are just monsters created by authors, they lose their power to prevent us from growing into such societies. The moment we begin to read these books as fiction, when we stop believing that such horrors and degeneration might be possible, is the moment we begin to descend into dystopia ourselves.
If children were to read the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel as merely a story that could not possibly have any truth to it, the preserving concept of “stranger danger” loses its impact. We cannot read this story to children without explaining its moral and begging them to heed its lesson.
In the same way, adults cannot read dystopian novels simply as futuristic fairy tales; we cannot consume them only for their shock and entertainment value. Rather, just as we would hope that children learn caution from Hansel and Gretel, it is our duty as responsible readers to learn an even greater caution from stories such as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and even The Hunger Games.
It is of even greater importance now in 2017 than when these stories were originally penned, even if that was not long ago. We already have turned deaf ears to the warnings of these stories and are already reaping the consequences as we slip into dystopia.
Consider the following:
Remember the citizens of the Capitol in The Hunger Gamesby Suzanne Collins?We were bothered by them for their selfishness, their vanity, their degenerate morality, and their obsession with entertainment. But are we equally concerned by such lifestyles in reality? Or do we shudder at them between pages and then act as they do in our own lives without even realizing?
In The Giver by Lois Lowery, another YA dystopian novel, babies who are not up to standards are “released.” I remember my friends and I crying over this chapter in elementary school. Yet now so many former young readers champion the killing of the pre-born because of detected health problems, special needs, or simply because the child is unwanted. How can we justly promote in reality the things of which we once read with sorrow?
Fahrenheit451 is fairly explicit in its message (Bradbury makes no attempt at subtlety -bless him). Yet while we read of the death of literature, we retreat without a thought into cheap entertainment as soon as we finish the book. Worse, we ignore his clear warnings and are happy to glean our information through soundbites and social media blurbs rather than through thorough reading, considerate conversations, and serious thought. Are we, too, mindlessly “watching our stories” without discernment or contemplation?
Perhaps the most shocking dystopian novel I’ve read is Brave New World(Aldous Huxley).At least, it was shocking when I read it four years ago. Now, it feels rather ordinary. (Has the world really fallen so far in four years? Perhaps I am simply older and sorrowfully wiser.) As I read this book, I was horrified at the unrestrained sexuality of it; most characters sought only their own pleasure, cared nothing for relationships, and procreation was a thing of the distant past. But is this so far different from today? We find ourselves living in a generation that boldly protects promiscuity and demands consequence-free pleasure while conservative approaches to relationships are scorned as old-fashioned.
Ayn Rand’s Anthemcenters on a character called “Equality 7-2521.” Everyone is equal, but, ironically, no one is free; every member of the society is equal to the extreme that none of them may differ from others. Today, are we perhaps striving for a dangerous equality like that of Anthem? We must certainly protect and value all people equally; however, Anthem warns against forcing equality of thought. Although we read this warning, do we follow it? The minute someone expresses an idea that we consider offensive, are we quick to aggressively silence him or her rather than admit that we all have the right to think freely?
I am not saying that everything in these dystopian novels will come true, but they are not nearly as far-fetched as they once seemed. Certainly I do not expect America to be divided into factions or our teenagers to be sent into battle against each other or for us to mate according to selection by governors. However, there are undeniable dangers to reading dystopian novels as fiction, just as there are dangers to ignoring the morals of fables and fairy tales.
We ought to read dystopian books as seriously as we read history books. It is said that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” and so we diligently are set to studying history from the minute we enter school. We also are encouraged throughout our school days to read dystopian stories, but we must not be satisfied with reading them as mere fiction. Rather, we must read them with the discernment and diligence with which we study history. It is imperative that when we read dystopian books, we read with great awareness of their relation to reality so that we are not, like poor history students, doomed to live them.
I recently visited my favorite indie bookstore and somehow managed to leave without using all of my credit! (I needed an excuse to return next week…) What did I purchase? A combination I believe works quite well:
1) A book with a setting that drew me in. (Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, taking place in my beloved London.)
2) A collection of stories to frighten me slightly. (Unnatural Creatures by various authors.)
3) Another quirky British read that joins my Austenite and Sherlockian sides. (Death Comes to Permberly by P.D. James.)
4) A novel by an author of my recent acquaintance to make me philosophical. (Nana by Emile Zola, author of the inspiration of BBC’s hit show, The Paradise.)
5) Finally, a volume of essays by my writing hero (one of them, anyway) to feed both mind and ambition. (Bradbury Speaks by Ray Bradbury.)
Quite a nice blend of fantasy, frights, and food for thought, wouldn’t you agree?
Once more, I find myself in the uncomfortable situation of actually enjoying my homework. A lot. I know that many people in my class find this irritating, but I can’t help it; I like to write, so naturally I will like an assignment that requires me to write a short story using the literary elements that we studied this year. As my story turned out better than I expected, I thought that perhaps I would share it here on my blog, but I will add this disclaimer: I am rather shy about my stories (unlike blog posts and essays which are open to anyone and everyone and their cousins’ pets) and thus I am nervous about sharing this little scribbling with the world. Well, maybe not the world… I’m nervous about sharing my scribbling with my whopping double-digit number of followers. That said, read it if you will, but don’t judge me too harshly; I’m not a Montgomery or Bradbury by any means, although those authors may or may not make appearances in this tale…
Without further adieu, I give you “The Window Washer.”
The Window Washer
The first time he saw her, in the library on a school day like every other, he tried to ignore her, pretending not to feel the intensity of her gaze upon his face. If it were not for this penetrating stare, she would have been remarkably easy to look through; she was almost translucent, in a way. That is, if a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood human could be translucent. She was like mist, for just as one can squint through mist yet still feel its cool caress against the skin, it was easy to look beyond her, with her powder-white skin and hair the color of a noon sun’s rays, but it was impossible to ignore the burn of her clear, clear eyes. If eyes are truly the windows of the soul, hers had no curtains to dull her spirit’s face as it peered out, smiling at the world around it.
The boy edged past her, not daring to let his soul wave at hers from behind its shades. Instead, he drew them further shut, trying to block the light that seemed to be streaming from her as lamplight from an open door. Crouching down at the end of the aisle, he began to search the lowest shelf.
“B…b-r-a-d…” he muttered to himself, still uncomfortably conscious of the girl behind him, watching as he searched for an author whose name he had already forgotten. Hopping a few inches to the right, he knelt, holding the shelf for balance, and scanned the middle row of books. Still not finding or remembering the author he had been sent after by his teacher, he grunted in frustration and hoisted himself to his feet.
Without warning, a warmth pressed gently into his shoulder. He looked up with a start and just as quickly ducked his gaze back to the floor, blinking rapidly like a child who has mistakenly stared into the sun. The pressure of the girl’s hand, so tiny and fragile, increased as if to insist that he look at her.
“What do you want?” he asked defensively. Thankfully no librarian was nearby for he had not bothered to lower his voice.
The girl gave no audible reply, but with her other hand, equally tiny and fragile, reached in front of him and pointed to a book so slim and short and dark that he had failed to see it hidden amidst the others.
The boy squinted at the faded name printed on its spine and after a moment, recognized it as the author whose name he had forgotten: Bradbury. Bending forward, the girl eased it from its resting place and held it out to the boy. He stared blankly at its worn cover, where an illustrated fire burned as brightly as it had since first printed and the shadow of a book flapped its covers helplessly amid the printed smoke. She gave it a gentle shake as if to say “Take it,” and dumbly, he grasped it, rose, and hurried away, never once meeting her gaze.
The boy awoke with a jerk. He had been having a nightmare. As his heart resumed its regular tempo, he cautiously turned his head to his right as if afraid that the monsters that haunted his dreams were still nearby. Instead, all he saw was a book, illuminated around its edges by the glow of his alarm clock.
“3:00 am,” read the neon blue letters of the clock.
“Everything always seems worse at 3:00am,” a silent voice quoted. He had read that line just the evening before in the book that lay beside him, another book that the silent girl had given him, one filled with the beauty of a distant Canadian town and the dreams of a fiery-haired girl with a temper to match her braids.
He had balked when the girl had followed him to the fiction section, turned her flashlight eyes on him, and pointed to this book; its cover image, so unlike the exiting flames of the first novel, was so pastoral, so…girly. That was the only way that he could describe it and was so doubtful of this selection (not in the least because he was decidedly against reading outside of that required to pass his remedial English class) that he had opened his mouth to protest.
“No, thanks,” he was about to say, holding up his hands and backing away from the girl and the paperback she held as one might from a coiled snake. But she was only- in appearance at least- a slender girl in a flowery blouse with a slight smile that might have won his immediate affection had he only had the courage to look at her face.
She was not to be deterred and softly but gently took his raised hand and pressed the tiny volume into it, closing his fingers around it and peering at him intently. His eyes peeked for a fraction of a moment into hers, but again he could not withstand the gleaming of her open soul. When he looked up again, she was gone, leaving only the book nestled in his arms.
Now it was sleeping on his nightstand between its thin covers, but he was learning that if he just cracked them open and gave the words his attention, a beautiful world of people and sights and emotions he had never before experienced would awaken all at once to comfort him in the face of nightmares, easing his rapid heartbeat, providing a means of escape.
Squinting at the letters of the book by the dim glow of the clock, still blinking “3:00am,” he watched a sunrise on Prince Edward Island from the garden of a little home with a green roof and a laughing girl named Anne.
The passport to Prince Edward Island fell with a soft thud into the book drop beneath the library counter. As he was turning to exit, the boy paused, swiveled slowly, and walked past the cluster of tables where fellow students worked or procrastinated and into the fiction section. Perhaps without even knowing it, he smiled softly as he passed the pastel sisters of the book he had once condemned as too feminine.
As he stooped to examine this shelf, a sparkle caught his eye. The girl with the crystalline eyes blinked at him through an empty spot on the shelf. She was surprised at first, but the boy did not notice the brief flicker behind her lashes as he averted his gaze in embarrassment and, although it was their third meeting, an inexplicable fear of her piercing gaze. A moment passed and he could still feel the prickle of her stare on his forehead. Finally, he cleared his throat, a harsh sound against the whispering and rustling of the library, and mumbled a greeting.
“Hello,” was the reply, and, as she spoke, he realized that he had never heard her voice before, but, somehow, she had spoken volumes. Her voice, in that single word, was as intense and clear as her eyes, though not nearly so alarming. There was a softness to it that reminded him of the breezes he’d imagined while reading the second book and it stirred something within him. For a split second, a spark leapt into his eyes too. It faded quickly, but the girl saw its ember and spoke again.
“Come here.” It was not a command, but an invitation.
“Why?” No amount of gruffness could veil the curiosity in the boy’s voice.
“Come and see.” The flame in her eyes danced to the lilt in her voice, hinting of a secret joy that she ached to share.
He rose and hurried around the shelf to where she squatted, several books piled on the floor around her while she held one like a child in her arms. It was open and she was flipping through its pages, pausing every couple of turns to skim a line and breathe deeply, as though drinking in the words with the scent of the grey pages.
“What’ve you got there?” the boy asked.
She just smiled and held it up for him to see its cover, where the silhouette of a man with a long nose, magnifying glass, and tobacco pipe was embossed in a dull bronze. The rest of the book was black, aside from the bold title.
The boy nodded appreciatively. Somewhere he had heard of this story… television, maybe? He could not remember.
“Is it good?” The rapt expression on the girl’s face as she read another page answered this question.
“What’s it about?” he tried again. This time, she closed it with a snap and held it out to him.
“That’s a mystery for you to solve,” she said, her voice lowered and filled with intrigue. Her eyes twinkled playfully as he took the book from her outstretched hands.
Several weeks passed before the boy returned to the library; it was a hefty book that she had chosen for him, after all, and there had been many cases for him and Sherlock to solve. When he finally returned with the finished book, there was a marked change about his eyes that at first glance was not obviously for the better. Large bags circled them in purply puffs and to outsiders, these bags might indicate insomnia or depression or the incurable procrastination that ails most adolescents, but if they had bothered to look beyond the sagging eyelids and the reddened whites, as the girl did, they would discover that these were not just the bags of a sleepless teenager, living off of caffeine and late-night cram sessions, but book bags, albeit of a different sort. These “book bags” were caused by late-night reading and early-morning rereading and reading at every spare second in-between. And, packed within them, there was a glow, like that of embers, waiting only for one final breath of oxygen before bursting into glorious flames.
The girl saw all of this, for her eyes too had once undergone that metamorphosis of readership, and she approached the boy at once when he reentered her domain.
“Hello!” he said, his voice less gruff than usual. His bloodshot eyes peeked into her stainless-window eyes from behind their fading curtains. Hers shone back, but somehow, despite- or perhaps because of- many nights of squinting in a darkened room at the many letters of many words on many pages, the intensity did not burn as much as it had at first.
“Enjoyed adventuring with Mr. Holmes?” she nodded to the book he held.
He broke their gaze and looked down at the book, fumbling absently with its pages, every one of which had been read in full, despite frequent requisite visits to online dictionaries.
“Yes, thanks,” he replied and then, on impulse, added, “Is there anything else you’d suggest?”
She gasped in excitement, clasping her cream-colored hands together and opening her mouth to speak. But, as suddenly as she’d opened it, she closed it and bit her lip in thought, as if struggling to contain the flood of authors and titles that threatened to burst forth. A few seconds ticked by. The boy again sent the finished book down the book drop and turned back to face the girl, who continued to look at him, the light of her extraordinary eyes dimmed to a warm fervency.
“I do,” she said at last, “but I think you should try choosing something for yourself.”
Long after the girl had left, he had stood lost in the maze of shelves, trying in vain to choose a book- just one book- but finding himself as helpless as he had been on his first visit. This time, however, he was not wholly blind to the arrangement of the authors and he stumbled back to the “B”s, back to the first author, back to the beginning.
But then, something flashed across the corner of his vision; it struck against the window of his soul and refused to be ignored. He stopped, staring at the book with the red-lettered title that seemed to shout at him from its perch. It called down to him from the top shelf, where it seemed exalted above the others. Perhaps it was its smooth spine, its creamy covers, or its bold title that grabbed at his attention and would not let go, but whatever it was that had distinguished it from the other books was unimportant; it appealed to some yearning in the boy’s soul and, while two months ago he would have shrugged off this entreat, he did not hesitate to answer it now.
The boy strode directly to the shelf and, standing on his tiptoes, pulled the book from its spot, heedless of its neighbors as they slide sideways in its absence. He marched to the desk and checked it out without bothering to read the synopsis on its back cover. Throughout the rest of the day, the bus ride home, and the tedious work of the evening, the book sat patiently next to the boy, secure in the knowledge that it would be read soon.
That night, chores done, homework finished, the moment that boy and book had been awaiting arrived. Picking it up tenderly, he sat on the edge of his bed, slowly drew it open, and turned to the very first line of the first chapter.
And then, as he read that first line, the veil was torn and his mind set free. The dusty panes of loneliness and worry that had dimmed his eyes were shattered and his soul shone from its windows as brilliantly as that of the girl who had washed away the grime of the world with words.
A week later, another young man entered the library, downtrodden, suspicious, and alone. He sat concealed behind a corner shelf, staring blankly at the bruised palms of his hands, when a voice broke in on his murky thoughts.
“Hello there,” it said. “I have something you need.”
Turning his shaggy head, which spoke sorrowfully of neglect and despair, he saw, crouched down beside him, another boy, with two shining eyes, two hands, and a book.