Ray Bradbury’s Power of Memory

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By Virginia Postrel

Ray Bradbury has died at 91. His most famous book, "Fahrenheit 451," is about book-burning in a world where entertainment on wall-size screens (“parlor walls”) has replaced reading. Published in 1953, it’s a dystopia woven from a fear of television.

Its redemptive ending establishes another theme: the power of memory. The books aren’t gone. Their texts have been preserved in the memories of people who read them and will keep them alive until it’s safe to write them down again. One man has Plato’s "Republic," another "Gulliver’s Travels," another the book of Ecclesiastes. Books aren’t physical objects. They’re words that resonate and linger in the mind.

When I was in high school, I chose a passage from "Fahrenheit 451" to memorize and recite as a literary interpretation exercise in a speech class. Nearly four decades later, only fragments remain. The most important is this one:

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.

Although I enjoy both science fiction and beautiful prose, I never read much of Bradbury’s work, at least not once I was old enough to understand or appreciate it. (Sometime in elementary school I tried "The Martian Chronicles" without realizing it was a series of short stories and not a novel.) But he exercised an enormous influence on my life through that one passage in "Fahrenheit 451."

Here’s an earlier bit from it, which I only half remembered until I looked it up. It is appropriate for the occasion:

When I was a boy my grandfather died, and he was a sculptor. He was also a very kind man who had a lot of love to give the world, and he helped clean up the slum in our town; and he made toys for us and he did a million things in his lifetime; he was always busy with his hands. And when he died, I suddenly realized I wasn’t crying for him at all, but for all the things he did. I cried because he would never do them again, he would never carve another piece of wood or help us raise doves and pigeons in the backyard or play the violin the way he did, or tell us jokes the way he did. He was part of us and when he died, all the actions stopped dead and there was no one to do them just the way he did. He was individual. He was an important man. I’ve never gotten over his death. Often I think what wonderful carvings never came to birth because he died. How many jokes are missing from the world, and how many homing pigeons untouched by his hands. He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on.

Ray Bradbury was only 33 when he published that standard for a life well lived. Over the next six decades, he lived up to it.

(Virginia Postrel  is a Bloomberg View columnist. The author of “The Future and Its Enemies” and “The Substance of Style,” she is writing a book on glamor.)

-0- Jun/06/2012 18:54 GMT