Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ray Bradbury Speaks!

Ever since I moved to L.A., I’ve been eager to hear Ray Bradbury speak in person. Usually I learn of his speaking engagements about 24 hours after they take place, but this weekend (thanks to L. and her obsession with the New York Times) I got some advance notice. Yesterday, Bradbury appeared at the Ventura College Theater as part of the campaign to save the H.P. Wright Library, which is being threatened by budget cuts.

The 88-year-old writer was wheeled onstage and sat expressionless as he was introduced. At first glance, I thought he looked tired and slightly aloof. Boy was I wrong. After a pregnant pause, he asked, “Are you ready for me?” Then he leaned toward the microphone and began: “I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve called you here today…” Everyone laughed, because at that moment we realized that he was just using silence to draw us in. Before he’d said a word, he was holding us in the palm of his hand. Moments later, we fully understood that we were in the presence of a master storyteller.

For the next half hour, Ray Bradbury regaled us with stories about his life – his first kiss (he was 26, and so elated that he missed his bus stop on the way home), his decision to write weird tales (no matter what people said about his emulation of Edgar Allan Poe and Edgar Rice Burroughs), the sale of his first two novels The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man (in the same day!), his confident foray into Hollywood screenwriting (see It Came from Outer Space), the week he spent in Rome with Federico Fellini (who, at the end of their visit, enthusiastically called him “MY TWIN!”). Time and time again, he kept coming back to the subject of libraries – because, he said, that was the center of everything. His life as a writer began with his early explorations at the neighborhood library in Waukegan, Illinois:

“Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears. A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast, marched on forever… This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered. Up front was the desk where the nice old lady, Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo. There went Miss Wills, the other librarian, through Outer Mongolia, calmly toting fragments of Pieping and Yokohama and the Celebes. Way down the third book corridor, an oldish man whispered his broom along in the dark, mounding the fallen spices…”
[excerpt from Something Wicked This Way Comes]

Bradbury’s family moved to Los Angeles when he was 13 years old. His father was out of work for years and the family didn’t have any money for books, so the local library was his saving grace. After he graduated high school, Bradbury dismissed college in favor of the library – because, he explained, nobody tells you what to read there. Instead, you make your own choices based on what genuinely inspires you. He explained that, over the course of ten years, he went to the library for three full days every week until he had read “every damn book in the whole damn library.”

That’s how Ray Bradbury has lived his life: doing what he loves and loving what he does. That’s his secret to living forever and he urged us to learn from his example. Don’t invest in colleges and universities, he said, because they don’t need your money as badly as kindergartens and libraries. It’s through early childhood education and local libraries that we develop lifelong passions. If people aren’t passionate about discovering other worlds by the time they’re 12 or 13, he added, it’s too late. That’s why the libraries are so important.

“We live in strange times,” he said, when the preservation of libraries is not a top priority. We may not be burning books, like the fascists in his novel Fahrenheit 451, but we’re certainly undervaluing them. We’re also undervaluing the role that libraries play in our communities. During the presentation, I sat next to two older women, Gracie and Mary. Mary told me that she walked to the library from her house everyday, and didn’t know where she’d go if the library closed. Gracie, who looks remarkably youthful at age 91, seemed to draw much of her energy from a lifelong love of books. Both of these women were clutching copies of my favorite Bradbury novel (in fact, one of my favorite novels, period) Dandelion Wine – a meditation on the magic and wonder of youth that never dies.

Ray Bradbury’s mission is not just to help save libraries, but to help people save the most passionate part of themselves. He closed his speech with two pieces of sage advice:
1. “Make sure that if anyone gives you money [for work], they have the same ideas you have. If you love what you do and do what you love, it’s okay… but never work just for money… Tomorrow morning, if you get out of the bed and think about the people who oppose you and who don’t believe in what you’re doing, call them up and fire them.”
2. “Love is the answer to everything. All of my books are things that I love. All my stories come out of my love… They don’t come from here [the head], they come from here [the heart]. I must teach you to pay attention to your heart, and the library has got to be in the center of your being, the center of your heart, and your love for the future.”

So far, the “Save Wright Library” campaign has raised $80,000 – enough, the organizer says, to keep the library open until August and guarantee the existence of a summer reading program for neighborhood kids. But they’ve still got a long way to go to reach their goal of $280,000 by March 2010. To find out how you can help, visit their website. And tell them Ray sent you...

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Joe, for your wonderful comments on Ray Bradbury and his devotion to libraries. We are very fortunate to have such an articulate advocate who says it like it is. And I'm pleased that you quoted Chapter 2 of "Something Wicked This Way Comes", as I so enjoyed reading it to you all on Saturday.

    Here's to all those who support their libraries now, and to those who will in the future. Give up a cup of Starbuck's coffee a week and give it to your local library instead. As Ray Bradbury says, "...the library has got to be he center of your heart, and your love for the future."

    Berta Defren Steele, Chair
    Save Wright Library Campaign