Politics & Policy

Thoughts on Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury
He took seemingly ordinary language and made music with it.

The year was 1969. I was 18 or so.

I stood in front of the small science-fiction section of the Brigham Young University bookstore, taking I Sing the Body Electric from the shelf, hefting it, opening it, reading just a little, then putting it back.

I had too much respect for books in general, and for this book in particular, even to imagine reading the whole thing without paying for it.

But it was a hardcover. Not a discounted book-club edition — the real thing, at full price. And I was a college student, pretty close to broke. Buying this book would push me over that edge.

I came back day after day. Until I broke down and, yes, spent all my money on a single book.

#ad#Worth it?

This was Ray Bradbury’s newest story collection. It contained “Yes, We’ll Gather at the River.” “The Man in the Rorschach Shirt.” “The Lost City of Mars.” “The Haunting of the New.”

Above all, the story that gave its title to the collection, about a child who rejects the robot “grandmother” given to her to help her deal with the death of her mother.

I knew I would love these stories, and I did, and I do.

I had already lived the life of Daniel Spaulding in Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. I had visited the strange, magical, unreal but utterly truthful Mars of The Martian Chronicles. I had shivered my way through The October Country.

Even his titles were magical: “The Machineries of Joy,” “The Golden Apples of the Sun.” Reading Bradbury was like exploring my own memories; all the hope and joy and dread and anguish of childhood and adolescence were turned into music in his stories.

Five years later, a young woman who lived across the street had to wear eyepatches for several days, making her effectively blind. I went over to her house to help her pass the time.

I brought that hardcover of I Sing the Body Electric. I read to her.

That was when I realized that Bradbury’s stories were not meant to be read silently. Your lips have to move, your voice has to produce those words, the cadences of his language have to rise out of your own throat.

What counted in the Whitman quote Bradbury used for his title was not the word “electric.” Not even “body.”

It was “sing.”

The girl I was reading to married me. Talk about a book changing your life! (She assures me that it was me, not Bradbury, she fell in love with.)

Something else happened, too. As a playwright, I was then studying Shakespeare, writing plays in blank verse, feeling the power of iambic pentameter in dialogue I wrote for the stage.

Now, though, I realized that it wasn’t just on stage that the flow and music of language counted. Bradbury used it in his fiction; he used it all the time.

#page#You never had to stumble or pause when reading Bradbury. It wasn’t just the smoothness of his language — it was the way he used repetition, fragmentation, breathless run-on sentences to sweep you through the tale.

His language made even the quotidian narrative sections emotional, so when the story reached for deeper feelings, they were within easy reach.

Not long afterward, I turned to writing fiction, and as I made my first forays I had Ray Bradbury’s permission to use cadenced language, his example to prove that prose could sing.

#ad#Bradbury never made you stop reading to notice how cleverly he wrote. On the contrary, his music held you inside the story, as if the words had come out of your own mind and heart.

He embodied what Pope advocated: “True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest, / What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest.”

I learned many techniques from many writers — exposition from Heinlein, ironic viewpoint from Austen and Mitchell, clarity and invisibility from Asimov, motive from Richter.

But from whom else could a writer learn to take seemingly ordinary language and make music with it? Ray Bradbury was the rhapsode of our time. Now he’s gone, but his music lives on, played on his virtuoso instrument: the voice of every reader, whether we read aloud or in the privacy of our hearts.

— Orson Scott Card is a novelist and critic.

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