Despite his reputation in some quarters as an apple-cheeked optimist, Bradbury knows, in Solzhenitsyn’s often-quoted phrase, that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”
Selfishness, greed, senseless environmental destruction, violent fear of the unfamiliar, and the shadow of death are as part of Bradbury’s stories as are their wonder, adventure, and love of life. In an article originally published in National Review and reprinted in his book Enemies of the Permanent Things, Russell Kirk recounts the true story of a librarian’s reaction to Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury’s depiction of a future in which books are feared and burned.
The librarian received a copy by mistake, read it, and was duly offended by it. The book was . . . disturbing
. According to Kirk, she fired off a letter of furious protest to the wholesaler: How dare they send such a disturbing book! “I took it right out in back and burned it,” she crowed proudly. From which Kirk concludes, “The future is already here.”
That was in 1969. Today, when America’s best and brightest increasingly assume that their fellow citizens have somehow evolved to a point beyond freedom and dignity (in B. F. Skinner’s hateful phrase) and as a result need to have everyday decisions made for them by an enlightened elite, it may be that Bradbury’s little book is needed now more than ever. “Ethics and things” are at the unseen core of this work, to which an informative companion piece might be C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.
In late 2005, Earl Hamner and I visited Bradbury at his dandelion-colored house in Los Angeles. Sitting in his toy- and book-strewn den in a wheelchair, wearing tennis shorts but a neat shirt, tie, and cardigan, Bradbury greeted us like old friends, though it was my first face-to-face meeting with him. For a full hour he spoke of his love of writing — “You’ve got to embrace the thing you love, and never let it go! Follow the love of your life!” he said — as well as his passion for monster movies and comics, his thoughts on the long-delayed cinematic remake of Fahrenheit 451 (which he pronounces “Fahrenheit Four-Five-One”), how he came to create the novel’s chief character (the fireman Montag), his excited plans to see Peter Jackson’s then-unreleased remake of King Kong, and many other matters.
All too soon it was time to take our leave. Hamner, ever the gracious Virginia gentleman, shook hands with Bradbury and quietly expressed his thanks again for that long-ago piece of advice. As Bradbury turned to me, I shook his hand and said quietly, “Ray Bradbury, live forever!” Tears sprang into his eyes — he is a man who cries for joy at every kindness — and his mouth moved soundlessly for a moment, searching for words. Quickly he raised my hand to his lips and gave it a quick kiss. “God bless you, Jim,” he said. “God bless you — and I wish the same for you!”
As we walked away from the Bradbury house, I thought about what the man’s works have meant to me and many other readers since we first encountered them. What remains for those who haven’t read Bradbury for some time are memorable books worth rereading and a collage of unforgettable images: the canals of Mars filled with fragrant wine, a gun that fires deadly bees, a man covered with animated tattoos, a cocky gun-slinging bully sitting down in a barber chair for his final shave at the hands of a barber he’s threatened once too often, a spaceship harvesting a small fragment of the sun, a frightened old woman racing home through the midnight streets of Green Town and groping for the light switch in a darkened room in which a stranger awaits, and an adolescent boy fearing for the life of his humble, decent father amid the autumn twilight in a small Midwestern town.