Book Review: Becoming Ray Bradbury by Jonathan R. Eller

I suppose I should preface this by saying that this book was not what I expected.  I found it by chance browsing at the public library in the new book section.  It intrigued me because I love the short story form and Bradbury is an acknowledged master of it.  I knew a bit of his life story already and have read a number of his books: some short story collections and the novel “Fahrenheit 451”.  I didn’t check it out right away, however.  I went home and read a few reviews online first.  Since the reactions I could find were generally positive, I decided to give it a try.  What I expected was a literary biography, but that’s not what it is.  It is a critical work, meticulously researched, that delves into Bradbury’s literary influences and thought processes as he began his career and achieved early fame in the 1940s and early 50s, up until the publication of “Fahrenheit 451”.

I wanted to like it.  I really did.  I love reading about how authors get their start, how they struggle for recognition, and how they have to overcome obstacles on their way to renown.  Yes, I wanted to like it, but it was very difficult to do so for two important reasons.  One of them was not that Bradbury isn’t one of my favorite short story writers.  I like his work, but my favorites in the short story form are James Tiptree, Jr., Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Jack London, and Jhumpa Lahiri.  That doesn’t matter.  Bradbury is an important writer in the science fiction/fantasy genre, and a good biography would be a fascinating look not only at the writer himself but at an important stage of American literature at a point when genre writers were struggling to free themselves from the ghetto in which they’d been relegated.

One reason it was hard to like this book was not the writer’s fault at all but the publisher’s.  It is printed in a tiny, almost impossible to read font.  Every time I finished a reading session my eyes would be sore, and it would take them hours to recover.  It was so bad that I almost gave up, something I almost never do once I start reading a book.  But my expectations were high, as I already mentioned, and I persevered because I hoped for a grand, unique reading experience.

Therein lies the second difficulty, which does, alas, lie upon the author.  The book is boring.  The writer is obviously a gifted researcher, but he has taken material that could have been a masterpiece and has turned it into an academic burden.  I kept waiting for it to come to life, but it never did.  I kept waiting for emotion, the emotion that the writer explains that Bradbury depended on so much for his inspiration, to manifest itself, but there was nary a sign of it.  And I know, I can feel, that there is so much emotion behind Bradbury’s story and life.  I know as a writer that every little success, every little sale, especially early on is a thrilling experience, and holding the first magazine which contains a story of yours, or your first book, is a sensation beyond words.  There is no hint of this in the book.  I had to intuit that such would be the case.  Indeed, even Bradbury’s meeting his wife-to-be, and their courtship, and marriage, and having children, is presented in a droll, ho-hum, factual manner.  I can’t believe that these experiences could be so devoid of any emotion.  I know that it is not so.  What I get from this is that the material that the author had to work with is marvelous, that Ray Bradbury’s life would make a wonderful biography which would be an inspiration to writers for generations to come, but this book is not it.

This book drowns in details, probably more detail about Bradbury’s literary and cultural influences that he was even consciously aware of.  I could be wrong about this, but I have a feeling that the author made too many assumptions and tried to connect too many dots, and in some conclusions came up with an at least partially contrived picture, a neat sewing-up of the mental processes in aftermath.  The truth, though, is that there is a lot of groping in the dark, a lot of hit and miss, a lot of sampling and struggling as a writer comes to grips with his voice and his philosophy and the way he sees the world.  This too could have been presented with more enthusiasm and verve.  I am reminded of the way Irving Stone wrote of Jack London’s self-education in “Jack London: Sailor on Horseback”, how he made it seem like a passionate, all-consuming, glorious adventure.

In conclusion, I would say that the book is interesting, but it could have been so much more.  It is not interesting enough for anyone to read who has weak eyes; it is not worth the risk of damaging them further.  I suppose that would be alleviated by tackling it on an e-reader where you can choose your font size and not in the poorly composed print book.  But as I said, most of the power of this book is in its potential, not its fulfillment.  Someday I hope someone else tackles Ray Bradbury’s life story in a more compelling way; I’ll be the first one in line for a copy of the book.

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