Certainly Bradbury was not considered a classic by the person who bought his home of 50 years and destroyed it last year. That may or may not be important to readers 100 years from now. Do I wish Shakespeare’s New Place/Nash House was still in Stratford-Upon-Avon, instead of an empty lot? Yes. Do I still read Shakespeare anyway? Yes. Is it a valid comparison? I don’t know.
Perhaps what makes a classic is that there is no comparison. Bradbury hasn’t been gone long, but we already know his writing stands out. No one else has done what he did.
Other authors have sold more books. In fact, according to Vlogger and speaker Hank Green, E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey has sold more copies than the total number of books Bradbury sold in a lifetime. But sales do not make a classic.
Uber-popular author Neil Gaiman agrees in this Tumblr post:
“If ever you’re curious, go and look at the annual bestseller lists for years gone by. You’ll find a lot of books that sold an unbelievable number of copies when they were fashionable. I’m sure The Revolt of Mamie Stover also sold more books than Ray Bradbury will ever have sold in his whole life in its year. Have you read it? Heard of it? Off the top of my head, Peyton Place in its year, or The Gospel According to Peanuts, or The Ginger Man, or Jonathan Livingstone Seagull in their years undoubtedly outsold all of Ray Bradbury. But when their day is done, mostly those kind of books drift back into the void, and go, if not out of print, then back into a world where nobody quite knows why they sold that many copies any more…
“Meanwhile, Ray Bradbury sold quite a lot of books in 1956, and quite a lot of books in 2006 (Fahrenheit 451 alone has sold over 5 million copies), and he found his readers for his books and his stories in every year. And I’ll wager a hundred years from now he’ll still be read…”
Gaiman refers to books that were sensations in their time. Bradbury’s work may not be sensational, but it is sensual, subtle, powerful, prescient (Fahrenheit 451). His books have always been liked but not always considered “literature.” Perhaps that’s because not all of his stories are classics. Perhaps it’s because some of his works are science fiction and genre fiction has not been deemed “classic-able.” Or perhaps it’s because his works, and he himself, were accessible. Bradbury stories are both readable and likable. There was nothing pretentious about him.
My favorite Bradbury works are Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Neither is science fiction, though you could call Something Wicked a fantasy of evil, incorporating themes of youth, age and time. A master of the high drama of childhood, Bradbury’s writing makes everyday life soar with excitement. Something Wicked This Way Comes is half story/half poem, with deeply evil characters and a father and son who must find the strength to fight them. Their early 20th century Illinois town is visited—you could say infested—by a carnival with tent flaps that signal you to enter their darkness, where mirrors show your past, and where the dangers of a merry-go-round are equal to those of embracing the devil.
Sit down and read a Bradbury novel. Let his language sink in. Sometimes you’ll want to go back over a passage, which is not easy to do because his pacing can be thrilling and you are compelled to read on. But you’ll want to re-read anyway to answer the question, “How did he do that?” It’s not classic language. It’s not 2015 language. It’s Bradbury’s language, and it’s worth reading over and over again.
Petrea Burchard is a Pasadena photographer, blogger, voice-over talent and author. Her story “Portraits” is included in Literary Pasadena (Prospect Park Books, 2013). She contributes book reviews to Hometown Pasadena, for which we and our readers are very grateful. Find more Petrea doings, writings, and photography at PetreaBurchard.com and LivingVicuriously.
Petrea’s novel, Camelot & Vine, can be bought locally at the Pasadena Museum of History, Hoopla! in Altadena and the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse. The ebook version is available on Amazon.com.