BBC Future

The Paleofuturist

Ray Bradbury: The day I read to a legend

About the author

Matt is a writer, retrofuturist and time capsule hunter who lives in Los Angeles. He writes Smithsonian magazine's Paleofuture blog and is a contributing editor at The Futurist magazine.

Ray Bradbury

(Copyright: Getty Images)

Our columnist Matt Novak was one of the last people to interview the science fiction author. He recounts his chat with the writer who inspired him.

The heavy front door closed behind me, blotting out the revealing rays of the midday sun.

I cursed in my head. I should have caught a cab here, I thought. It was only a mile between my apartment and the house, so I had decided to walk. But April in LA can be hot. Sweat was running down my back and my palms were wet. I held them by my side awkwardly. Maybe the cool air would wisp some of the moisture away before I offered my hand.    

I stepped forward. Right foot out. Left foot. Right again. Don’t count the steps.

I could see the room now, at the end of a long hall. Books weighed heavy on shelves all around. The familiar smell of book dust –  the “finest pollen in the world”, as he had once described it  – hung heavy and familiar.

And there he was. Flanked by a carer, with a mop of white hair and thick-rimmed spectacles. Ray Bradbury, the man who had penned many of the defining books of my teenage years: Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man.

The world lost a literary legend on 6 June. Bradbury spent the best part of his 91 years writing books, short stories and TV shows which had a profound influence on the lives of countless science fiction and fantasy fans. And, needless to say, he has a special place in this Paleofuturist’s heart.

That is why, a few months ago, I made the pilgrimage to meet him. It was an honour to be able to quiz him and to thank him for all that he’s given the world. No doubt, Bradbury understood my fandom. He was a fan of so many writers and movie stars, growing up as a teenager in Los Angeles. His family moved to LA in 1934 when he was 14 years old and Bradbury was, as he describes it, an “autograph hound", collecting the signatures of movie stars in the 1930s.

Movies and politics

I have been asked if it was his last interview. It could have been. I don’t know. And nor does it matter. It was a rare moment with a childhood hero and a rare insight into a man whose prophecies seem as relevant today as they did 50 years ago.  

Mr Bradbury spoke with a kind of stilted cadence as a result of the stroke he had suffered 13 years earlier. He had a difficulty in conjuring the words that you could tell still burned inside of him.

It was frustrating thing to witness - a man struggling to produce the language that had defined his very existence; words that bubbled just below the surface; his body betraying his mind, in some small ways stifling the passion that was stirring underneath.

We talked about movies (he said Billy Wilder was the director who most influenced his work), we talked about politics, (he said President Reagan was the best president since Abraham Lincoln), we talked about why he never drove a car (he thought he would be a “maniac” behind the wheel) and we talked about his encouragement of his friend Walt Disney to run for the mayor of Los Angeles (Walt’s reply was, “who needs to be mayor when you’re already king?”).

I asked him about space exploration and whether it was something that he thought about much when he was a kid. “No, I was thinking about Mars. I wasn’t thinking about space. I read John Carter, Warrior of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. So, when I was twelve years old I wrote a sequel to John Carter. So I wasn’t thinking about space, I was thinking about John Carter and about Mars.”

I told him about the new John Carter movie. His eyes lit up, “Go get it for me! Go get the DVD and bring it here!” It was in those flashes of unbridled excitement that you could see why this man was so adored. He was the fan, the collector, the creator that we all want to spend time with.

But I was most interested in how he, as a man who had become larger than life, thought about his legacy as he looked back at the last 91 years. His reverence for books - both as sources of knowledge and adventure, but also as objects -- was about a future that was tangible; a sort of immortality that was assured of him and the other timeless figures who worked in service of the printed word.

“Books are alive, you see. They’re not dead, they’re alive. This book is alive,” he says tapping his hand against the copy of Fahrenheit 451 in front of him. “That’s me. That’s my flesh.”

His devotion to books is well documented, but to hear them first hand is as edifying as it is electrifying. There is always a suspicion that public figures are putting on an act; that words are said for effect or win friends or gain influence. But not here.

In an afterword to one of his most famous books, he wrote: “I did not write Fahrenheit 451, it wrote me. There was a cycling of energy off the page, into my eyeballs, and around down through the nervous system and out through my hands. The typewriter and I were Siamese twins, joined at the fingertips.” It was clear then that he believed in the symbiosis between author and book. And it was still clear now. 

Perhaps this is why Mr Bradbury found it so hard to embrace the idea of a future of words built with pixels. Digital squares are ephemeral. They do not have physical being after an author is gone. 

Print power

Bradbury was in some ways a man of contradictions. His futures were both reactionary and progressive in their vision. He told me that he didn’t predict the future, but that he tried to prevent it. And nowhere was that more true than in his aversion to eBooks and the internet.

I explained to Mr Bradbury that, as a writer in 2012, most of my work never saw the printed page. “Electronic books are junk. To hell with them,” he said slamming his palm against the table. “It’s fake, it’s stupid! Goddamnit, it’s wrong! A book is a book!”

His mission with novels like Fahrenheit 451, he said, was to ensure that physical books - real books, as he saw it - would still exist in the future. “I saved the libraries,” he said. “With [Fahrenheit 451], I went out and lectured and I saved libraries all around California.”

He truly believed in the power of the book and the sanctity of the library .He wrote his books in them and he wrote books about them. He claimed in a recent essay that he had probably written more “poems, essays, stories, plays and novels about libraries, librarians and authors than any other writer today”.

“If we ensure that by the end of their sixth year, every child in every country can live in libraries to learn almost by osmosis, then our drug, street gang, rape and murder scores will suffer themselves near zero,” he wrote.

As a collector of old media, I own a few magazines with some of my favourite Bradbury short stories in them. I brought along my 28 June 1952 issue of Collier’s magazine which first published his classic time travelling story, A Sound of Thunder.

I asked Mr Bradbury to sign the story for me. He graciously took my sharpie and struggled a bit as he signed over his own printed name, blazed in red on the pulpy page of the sixty-year-old magazine. He asked that I read some of the story to him.

I entertained the idea that we were like Faber and Montag in Fahrenheit 451, but with roles reversed; the young apprentice reading to the teacher. I said that I would love to, as a fan.

And with his eyes fixed intently on me, I led him to his sanctuary.

“The sign on the wall seemed to quaver under a film of sliding warm water. Eckels felt his eyelids blink over his stare, and the sign burned in this momentary darkness...”

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