I wonder at what temperature a Kindle burns.
The death of Ray Bradbury, the iconic author of Fahrenheit 451, the novel about books as kindling, prompted a darkly funny headline from the Onion:
Following Ray Bradbury's Death, Thousands Of People Buy Kindle Version Of Book About Demise Of Paper Books.
Bradbury himself mightily resisted having Fahrenheit 451 turned into an e-book. The man who wrote the chilling novel where firemen set fire to books instead of putting out fires complained that e-books "smelled like burned fuel." But last November, he finally gave in to the changing times. It was not possible to get a new book contract without e-book rights.
It is strange to see all the obituaries extolling Ray Bradbury as one of the last great science fiction writers, to read the blogs about 10 Bradbury predictions that came true. In real life, the Guardian once said Bradbury -- who disdained computers till the end -- was "one of the last bastions against the digital age."
"I don't try to predict the future," he said. "I try to prevent it."
It turns out that the man who gave us The Martian Chronicles, who courted his wife with the line "I'm going to the moon some day. Wanna come?" was actually far more of a nostalgist than he was a futurist.
"The wine was summer caught and stoppered," he wrote in his book Dandelion Wine. His life's work, more than 27 novels and 600 short stories, was often about "stoppering" the dreams and nightmares of long-lost summers.
I remember discovering Bradbury one long ago summer of my own at the American Center library in Kolkata. I was a college student then, and though the worlds he wrote about, whether small town America or a colony on Mars, were far removed from the hot humid reality of Kolkata, the writing entranced me.
In those years, I was inspired to copy down entire passages from the books I borrowed from the American Center in a diary so I would have them to savor long after the books themselves had been returned. I still have that diary. Its binding is falling apart now but the writing in Royal Blue ink is still clear. (It had to be written with a fountain pen, of course, because a ball pen would be just sacrilegious for such an exercise.) Over a couple of years I added many writers to the journal -- Henry Miller, James Baldwin, Yukio Mishima -- an adolescent's guide to literary pretension.
But the inaugural entry is for Bradbury's Dandelion Wine written by hand, with looping l's and squat r's:
He liked to listen to the silence, he said, if silence could be listened to, for, he went on in that silence you could hear wildflower pollen sifting down the bee fried air, by God, the beefried air! Listen! The waterfall of birdsong beyond those trees.
I no longer write in that diary. I rarely write by pen. I do not copy chunks out of books to preserve ideas "caught and stoppered." I am as digitally distracted as anyone else, Facebooking, tweeting and multitasking, restlessly moving from one idea to another. In a sense, I have become Bradbury's great nightmare. This was, after all, the man who famously told Yahoo, "To hell with you and to hell with the internet. It's distracting. It's meaningless; it's not real. It's in the air somewhere."
Bradbury spent his final years fighting the inevitable march of time. One of his last great passions was to try and save his local public library in an age when libraries and bookstores were dying without the help of the flamethrowers from book-burning firemen. Apparently, there was something worse you could do to books than burn them.
"There's no reason to burn books if you don't read them," he lamented.
Ray Bradbury was meant to be read and relished not just for his ideas, but for the sheer lyrical dance of words on the page. He needed to be absorbed through pores wide open. I have to confess it's probably been twenty years since I curled up with a Ray Bradbury book, even though he kept writing almost till the end. When I discovered him I thought he was imagining the future. Now I realize he is part of my past.
When a seminal writer of your growing up years dies, you realize that a little bit of you has died as well. Those books are not like the songs of your adolescence which accompany you throughout your life. I don't want to actually read Dandelion Wine again. Or Something Wicked This Way Comes. Or I Sing the Body Electric! I am afraid the more cynical jaded person I have become will not be able to embrace them with the same wide-eyed wonder anymore.
But I hope that something of the magic of Ray Bradbury rubbed off on me back then, that I still carry it with me, even if unknowingly, like a dusting of wildflower pollen.
RIP Ray Bradbury.
The fire balloon still drifts and burns in the night sky of an as yet unblemished summer.
--Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine
A version of this post first appeared on Firstpost.com.