I’m always 8 years old when I read Ray Bradbury, the great American writer who passed away Wednesday. Eight is the age at which I discovered The Martian Chronicles. I was too young and didn’t understand most of it, but I got the general idea: “One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing the roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.”
And then a long wave of warmth crossed the small town. A flooding sea of hot air; it seemed as if someone had left a bakery door open. The heat pulsed among the cottages and bushes and children. The icicles dropped, shattering, to melt. The doors flew open. Windows flew up. The children worked off their wool clothes. The housewives shed their bear disguises. The snow dissolved and showed last summer’s ancient green lawns. Rocket summer.”
I remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck the first time I read these opening lines of The Martian Chronicles. I was crouched between high bookcases in the stacks of the South Shore branch of the Chicago Public Library, and I had found a book I didn’t know I had been looking for. Only years later did I figure out Bradbury’s appeal to me: the pulse of the fantastic transforming the Midwestern familiarity of the scene, revealing the strangeness that moves within normalcy. To get to the South Shore Public Library, I had to walk past a dog who laid in wait to hurl himself in a foaming rage against the chain-link fence that kept him from devouring the vitals of passing children, past junior gangsters-in-training looking to mess with the bookish and absent-minded (as long as nobody’s mom was around), past dissolute men who hung out in the parking lot of the Party Mart. While there was no real danger, it took a certain steadfastness of purpose to make the journey to the library. But that was where Ray Bradbury could be found, so I went. Bradbury, who never attended college, described himself as “completely library-educated.” That was one of his two preferred explanations for how he became a writer: “I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library.” His other explanation involved a visit at the age of 12 to a carnival, where a magician named Mr. Electrico zapped him with an electrified sword and shouted at him, “Live forever!” Later, leaving the carnival grounds, Bradbury reported, “I stood by the carousel and watched the horses go round and round to the music of Beautiful Ohio. Standing there, the tears poured down my face, for I felt that something strange and wonderful had happened to me because of my encounter with Mr. Electrico.”
And there you have Bradbury in a nutshell. There’s a certain kind of person who is attracted to both the library and the carnival, and who finds his calling by shuttling between them. Bradbury was a heroic exemplar of the type. The obituaries list more than two dozen novels and hundreds of short stories, all sorts of honors, commercial success, the critical respect accorded to the great literary mainstreamer of science fiction and fantasy and a series of beloved works that includes Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine and The Illustrated Man.
But for me he’ll always be the author of The Martian Chronicles, and when I read him I’ll always be 8 years old and unable to believe what a treasure I’ve found in the musty library stacks. “Ready your stand,” one of the eerie, elongated Martians says to Sam Parkhill, a hot-dog vendor who receives the deed to half of the colonized planet of Mars shortly before cataclysmic war back on Earth will render the piece of paper meaningless. “Prepare the viands, prepare the foods, prepare the strange wines, for tonight is indeed a great night.” That’s how I will remember Bradbury, who miraculously transmuted hot dogs and soda pop into viands and strange wines.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College.