Ray Bradbury

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Ask any writer what quality is most difficult to impart to his or her work, and the answer will always be the same: Originality.  Writing is inevitably a struggle; characters come kicking and screaming into existence, first-draft plots are convoluted and unwieldy, themes are alternately obvious or obscure – but the most elusive aspect is nonetheless: Originality.  Only a select few have the gift of being able to write with an indelible stamp of individuality, a distinct perspective that distinguishes their work from all others.

Ray Bradbury has that gift.

Gilbert Highet, among others, has said that Bradbury "is one of the most original loving authors."  His work could never be mistaken for anyone else’s.  Every story, every page, every paragraph has a rare enthusiasm, an undisguised intelligence, and a singular viewpoint.

And what does Bradbury write about?  Dreams.  Nightmares.  Carnivals.  Mummies.  Magic.  The future.  The dear.  Bradbury can find the fantastic in the ordinary "Dandelion Wine," and the ordinary in the fantastic "The Martian Chronicles."  His stories set in the dusty ruins of Mars seem as credible as those set in the idyllic hometown he call Green Town, Illinois; the tales all ring true, because the people in them, their thoughts, their dreams, and their desires, are genuine and heart-felt.  Aristotle thought it was better for a storyteller to make his tales impossible and probable, than possible and unconvincing.  Bradbury has taken this advice to the outer limit; most of his stories are utterly impossible – and altogether convincing.

Another measure of Bradbury’s enormous talent is the wide variety of forms in which he has written.  He is best known for his hundreds of short stories, but he has been equally successful as an author of novels "Fahrenheit 451" and "A Graveyard for Lunatics," screen plays "Moby Dick," "Something Wicked This Way Comes," and essays "Yestermorrow," "Zen in the Art of Writing," not to mention radio shows, stage plays, musicals, and the libretto for an opera.  He’s even has a television series dedicated to adaptations of his work, The Ray Bradbury Theater, a tribute never afforded to any other American writer.  He’s written numerous volumes of poetry.  When Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley "discovered" Bradbury, they ignored those who would dismiss him as "a science fiction writer" and relabeled him "a dreamer and a poet."  Indeed, Bradbury’s work has little to do with science fiction, but much to with Poe, Kipling, Wells, Swift, and even Aristophanes, the classic talespinners who created fantasy worlds to show us the truth about our own.

Moreover, Bradbury’s impressive non-literary pursuits have made him a leading visionary of our time.  He was consultant and scenarist for the U.S. Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair.  He has conceived and designed rides for Disney theme parks.  He has consulted on city planning and rapid transit projects.  He collaborated on an animated film, Icarus Montgolfier Wright, which was nominated for an Academy Award.  His imagination seemingly knows no bounds.  "I’m glad I happened to be the one," Bradbury wrote, "who wet his thumb, shoved it in a creative socket and received a shock."

Bradbury seems particularly apt for special honors at a library, because no other living writer has done more to promote libraries, or has written more about his love of books and authors.  Bradbury stories have featured Hemingway, Wolfe, Dickens, Dickinson and Poe.  Perhaps his best-known novel, "Fahrenheit 451," describes a bleak, creatively stifled society produced by systematic book-burning.  Other writers use buckets of blood and gallons of gore to create their chills; Bradbury devised one of the most horrific scenes ever written by applying kerosene to the printed page.

In the early 1970s, Apollo astronauts named a region the moon Dandelion Crater – after Bradbury’s "Dandelion Wine."  For decades critics have scoffed that Bradbury’s outer space could never exist, and now, there it is – even on the maps.  It is a visible exemplar of what Bradbury does best – dissolving the thin line between the incredible and the inevitable.  Bradbury doesn’t derive intellectual pleasure from telling us what miserable slobs we all are.  Bradbury shows us what we can be, indeed, what we want to be.  He mixes the wisdom of age with the exuberance of childhood.  He has brilliantly bridged the gap between the literary and the popular.  It is perhaps this quality more than any other that makes him such an appropriate choice for the Helmerich award.  In this anniversary year, we honor a man who has distinguished himself, and now distinguishes us, with his work, his vision and his life.