Here’s an interesting story that snuck under our radar a few months ago. This past April, many of Ray Bradbury’s books were released as ebooks. At first glance, that’s not surprising at all. After all, Bradbury is an iconic and widely popular writer, one of our favorite genre’s finest. Given how digital books have given the publishing industry a shot in the arm, it’d be more surprising to see Bradbury’s works not represented. Except, for quite a while, the only one of Bradbury’s books that was available in an electronic edition was Fahrenheit 451…and that was very much at Bradbury’s insistence.
Prior to his death in 2012, Bradbury was a strong critic of many developments of the digital age, including ebooks and the Internet. He once said ebooks “smell like burned fuel,” and dismissed the media in no uncertain terms: “There is no future for ebooks,” said Bradbury, “because they are not books.” In a 2009 piece by the New York Times, Bradbury described being approached by Yahoo about putting one of his books online. Bradbury recalled:
They wanted to put a book of mine on Yahoo! You know what I told them? ‘To hell with you. 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.
Given that Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most powerful works ever written about the importance of preserving our written heritage, you might assume the author would be a proponent of anything that could ensure that knowledge will continue, such as freeing it from the restraints of physical copies, but on this issue Bradbury remained something of a Luddite. In fact, he only allowed Simon & Schuster to release an ebook version of Fahrenheit in 2011 as part of a contract renegotiation.
Some of Bradbury’s disdain for the Internet and digital publishing came from very real and understandable fears about his works being pirated and distributed through unofficial means, a concern that faces any content creator in the digital age. In a 2000 interview with the Peoria Journal Star, Bradbury said of the Internet, “Napster’s out there, stealing everyone blind. They’re stealing people’s work. They should be put in jail, all of them.” But his passion also sprang from his lifelong love of both libraries and books — physical books, not just the content contained within them. In that same interview, Bradbury said:
I still love books. Nothing a computer can do can compare to a book. You can’t really put a book on the Internet. Three companies have offered to put books by me on the Net, and I said, ‘If you can make something that has a nice jacket, nice paper with that nice smell, then we’ll talk.’ All the computer can give you is a manuscript. People don’t want to read manuscripts. They want to read books. Books smell good. They look good. You can press it to your bosom. You can carry it in your pocket.
And it’s true, there is something powerful and tangible about holding an actual book, but I have to suspect that some of that experience for me — and likely some of Bradbury’s experience — stems from simple nostalgia. I learned to read by raiding my dad’s collection of classic pulp science fiction from his bedroom closet. Bradbury told the Times that “Libraries raised me,” recalling that he used to spend three days a week in his local library because he couldn’t afford college.
But as much as I love the experience of holding a book in my hands, I have to concede that that experience will likely be the exception rather than the rule for my children. Already, my wife and I do most of our reading in digital formats, and I’ve stopped buying hardcopy books simply because I’ve already got shelves packed full of them and no more room to expand. I’ll do my level best to instill a love of reading in my sons, but ultimately reading off a screen will almost certainly be the predominant experience in their lives, and I don’t think that’s inherently any better or worse than reading off a printed page.
In spite of Bradbury’s longstanding resistance, this past April saw ebook publication of 16 of Bradbury’s books, including Dandelion Wine, The Illustrated Man, and one of my personal favorites, The October Country. While that might have stirred up Bradbury’s ire, here’s hoping that the change means more people will be able to read and come to love his works, even if not in the way he would have preferred.
And if Ray’s watching from somewhere in the Great Beyond, I hope he won’t mind too much if I curl up on the couch with The October Country…on my iPad.