We’re saying goodbye to Ray Bradbury today, and I wanted to take a moment to think about what has drawn me to his work over the years and what it has meant to me as a writer.
Like a lot of people, I first read Bradbury in high school: Fahrenheit 451. But to be perfectly honest, it didn’t leave a huge impression on me. My 15-year-old brain retained that censorship = bad, check.
The first Bradbury that meant something to me, though I also read it in high school, was “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a story from his linked story collection The Martian Chronicles. This is the story of a future, automated house desperately trying to hang on to normalcy in the wake of utter devastation. The house’s family is gone, but it keeps trying to wake them up for the day, cook their favorite breakfasts, set out their galoshes, read them poetry, and tuck them in at night. It’s an extreme example of personification and the pathetic fallacy, attributing human feelings to inanimate objects. In responding to trauma, the house has become trapped in a loop, desperate to be needed, acknowledged, loved again. If it only works hard enough.
The house mattered to me. Its sadness and desperation mattered to me. The story troubled me, puzzled me, long after I’d put it down. I could take it further than nuclear war = bad, check. It still gives me the same feeling as the dancing bear at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the one shot by a stray bullet who dances faster and faster because it believes it is being punished and that if it dances fast enough the pain will stop. Both moments are anguished ones. Reading “There Will Come Soft Rains” was a powerful experience for me, and probably one of the first times a short story made me feel…uncomfortable, for lack of a better word. Unsettled. I couldn’t just put it away.
I’ll be honest that I’m not a fan of Bradbury’s work across the board. While I love The Martian Chronicles and others, some of his writing I find overwrought, self-indulgent, overly sentimental, or boring. But some of his stories I can’t get out of my head. Some of them I return to again and again, and I introduce them to my own students and my friends and my colleagues. They still trouble and puzzle me. They still matter.
Ray Bradbury didn’t inspire me to become a writer, but he did strengthen my resolve. He showed me what was possible. I had always found reading fun and entertaining, but he’s one of the first authors I read who made it meaningful. And that’s what I took away from his writing. Ray Bradbury gave me stories that I read again and again. He gave me powerful reading experiences. He gave a sense of play and immersion and yes, pathos, in story and language that still marks my writing process today. I’m sorry to see him gone, but glad for the work he left behind. If you haven’t yet, I hope you take the time to discover it too.