I am always amazed, when talk turns to Best Opening Lines ever, that this is not included more often:
“George, I wish you’d look at the nursery.”
It seems innocuous, doesn’t it? And yet… I know that many of you recognize it as the opening line from “The Veldt,” the story which opens The Illustrated Man.
There was nothing innocuous about Ray Bradbury, or about the books and stories he crafted during his long and gorgeous life. It didn’t matter whether he was writing detective stories or space stories, exploring inter-species communication on Mars or inter-race communication on Earth. He told truths, and he told them with grace and an amazing deft hand.
I was in Home Depot when the alert came over my phone that he had died; it transpires that the measure-and-cut-the-trim aisle is not the manliest place to burst into tears. Later I went to Twitter, because I knew that my friends there, and on Facebook, would be feeling that same dark punching sorrow. Everyone was quoting lines and talking about what their favorite stories were, and I just sat here at my computer, watching. I couldn’t say what my favorite stories were, because all of them were my favorites. Sometimes I have a bit of extra love for “Kaleidoscope” or “I Sing the Body Electric” or any number of others, and “The Veldt” is certainly one of my most-loved stories from any author, but… For me, the whole body of Ray Bradbury’s work was crucial.
This has never not been true. The copy of The Illustrated Man to which I went for comfort last night is the same copy through which I’ve been paging for more than twenty years. It’s the 1979 Doubleday paperback edition; I was eleven when it came out. First I read the copy that lived in our house, and then in my early 20s I bought my own at a used bookstore. I don’t even know how many times I’ve read it since.
I should explain, perhaps, that my childhood was full of the incredible privilege of ALWAYS having books. We owned many (and I do not mean “scores” many, or even hundreds), and we went to the library in town all the time. We gave and received books as gifts. And we are all, one way or another, writers. Ray Bradbury’s books were among our primary texts; much of what we learned of faith and hope and magic came from Dandelion Wine and R is for Rocket and, of course, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Part of why I’m a writer, and a lot of why I am the kind of writer that I am, is inspired by Fahrenheit 451. If you will recall with me, the book is not only about books being burned because a majority finds them dangerous. It’s also about books being burned a page at a time because this minority or that minority found something objectionable or dangerous.
Because of Ray Bradbury, I know that the real job is to write the real book, and that it will find its way to the people who need or want it, whether they’re ten year olds with a jones for carnivals or adults considering space or censorship (or, more often, both, in the same person). He helps me remember that I can’t possibly please everyone, and so instead I must please myself, and I must please whoever my “ideal reader” is, and I must just tell whatever the story’s truth is.
And Bradbury didn’t just matter to me as a reader, as a writer, or as a seeker. He was also integral in how I became a teacher.
In my first year of being a man, which was also my first year of being a teacher, I guided my 8th and 9th grade students through a Ray Bradbury author study. They were a pair of classes that had been assembled punitively, but we did okay together. I still think author studies can go terribly wrong, and I know that some of them are probably still reeling from the alarming amount of Ray Bradbury’s work that we had to read and process in a relatively short time, but we all learned. I learned how to find ways to meet more students in their intersection of skill and interest. They learned how to use tools that would help them read other things when they got to college. We all learned about robot grandmothers and Martians and what it’s like when the person you love is gone, or going, or just out of reach.
I never met Ray Bradbury, but I believed in him. His work touched every single aspect of my life, and will continue to do so as long as I write and read and look for magic.
I miss him very much.