The first “grown up” novel I remember reading is The Martian Chronicles. My parents came into my room one day and handed me the book as if it were a rite of passage. It was an old copy—it had that old book smell—and it was folded and worn like it had been read many times. While I was too young to fully understand the satirical elements of the novel, I fell in love with Bradbury’s imagination. I knew he was saying something important about what it meant to be a human being, and I felt like I had just been initiated into a secret society, one who was on track to discover the secrets of life and happiness. I soon devoured as many of Bradbury’s short story collections as I could. I loved the Halloween tinge that bled into many of his works—Halloween had always been my favorite time of year, and Autumn my favorite season. And while Bradbury wrote about future technology or horror or other speculative elements, he was never a science fiction writer. He was always an author who wrote about people. That’s what makes his pieces timeless.
I read Dandelion Wine a few summers ago. As a teacher with the summers off, the season still holds for me some of the magic it once did for me as a kid. I resolved to read Farewell Summer during the week before school started that very same summer—it seemed like an appropriate frame for my vacation. Both works have that painful twinge of nostalgia while still celebrating the human spirit, and they’re written about a simpler time, drawing from Bradbury’s childhood in the 1920s. The most important scene in Dandelion Wine is when one of the characters realizes why he’s so happy—he finally realizes that he’s alive, and knowing he’s alive is the best feeling in the world. I try to keep that thought in the back of my mind as the workweeks blend together. Never forget that you’re alive! At the end of Farewell Summer, there is an unforgettable image symbolizing the passing of the torch when it comes to human spirit, in which an older man metaphorically passes his life force to a younger boy. I have been trying to keep that idea in my mind: we are all alive and part of something larger than ourselves. I try to remember this on days when I just don’t feel like doing anything after work, on mornings when I would rather be sleeping an extra twenty minutes than writing that chapter in my next book. And it works—it makes me get up off the couch or out of the bed and smell those metaphorical roses. And realize I’m alive.
Packing up my classroom for the summer, I came upon a Ray Bradbury piece I teach in my creative writing class. It’s called “The Pedestrian,” and it was written in 1951. The story tells of a man, a writer, who walks around the neighborhood at night while everyone else is inside. Though it was written more than half a century ago, Bradbury had the uncanny ability to predict where life was heading. In the story, everyone is inside—the suggestion is that they are all watching their televisions. The man in the story is the only one out, and in the end he is taken away by a police car—and it turns out there isn’t even a person inside the car; it’s all automated.
Every year I teach the story it scares my students a little. They recognize the number of hours they spend in front of the television, and they shudder, seeing that they have fulfilled Bradbury’s prophesy. Even on the last day of school, when students were dismissed from exams at 11 a.m., I heard students complaining in the hallway: “I don’t want to go home now—nothing’s on TV at 11 in the morning!” Since I first read “The Pedestrian,” I pay attention as I walk my dogs in the evening—pay attention to the windows I pass by, and it’s scary to count how many of them have that glowing blue flicker of the television screen. I’ve often wondered what humanity could accomplish if we collectively turned off our televisions and applied our brain power to something useful. Bradbury himself wrote 1,000-2,000 words every day—every day.
And as I put away my copy of “The Pedestrian” for the summer, tucking it in its folder until next year, and pack up the rest of my classroom, I am reminded of the lesson from Dandelion Wine—and really, the lesson that is woven throughout all of Bradbury’s work. I am human. I am alive. With Bradbury’s death coming at the beginning of my summer, I am reminded that I am alive, and that every second of my summer off is a gift, and not one that should be squandered. How can I loaf around when there are flowers to smell and books to read and places to go and stories to write? There is so much to appreciate in this world—there’s just no time for reruns.
Often when a great mind dies, it is said that a bright light has gone out in the world. But that is not so. Ray Bradbury was once told that he would live forever. And while that is physically impossible, it is already true for him—metaphorically. Ray Bradbury lives everywhere a child discovers the joy of being alive. He lives every time a writer sits down to pen a new tale. Every place a young reader cracks open one of his books and discovers his old tales as if they were brand new.
Even before I was published, Ray Bradbury had been a profound influence on my life as a reader, a writer, and a human being. He has cast light on the mystery of the human experience, and he has reminded us of what it means to be alive. So take some time today to breathe a little more deeply. To look at something mundane—really look at it—in a new and profound way. To appreciate the fact that you’re alive. And when your breast swells and your heart pumps with the realization of it, smile—for you’ll be touching the spirit of Ray Bradbury himself. Because you’ll know, then, that you’re alive!