Gary Earl Ross -  WBFO Commentary 2:59

An Open Letter to Ray Bradbury

Dear Mr. Bradbury,

            Picture a black boy of ten in the early Sixties in Buffalo, New York. The city’s circumstances are not yet grim, the streets not yet mean, the schools not yet failing. This boy is already a reader, his parents having exposed him to books early. In fact, his favorite time in school has always been Friday afternoon, when the school librarian visits his classroom and stands books on the chalk trays so students can sign them out for the weekend. Lately, however, the boy finds the books available in school less appealing. He is tired of stories about dogs and ducks and talking steam shovels. Having read comic books for several years, having seen the first network broadcast of King Kong when he was five, and having watched Superman and Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, the boy yearns for stories that are more engaging than cute, more fantastic than instructional.

            There are books at home, some he has read, others his parents say he’s too young to read. He enjoyed Tom Sawyer but didn’t quite understand Huckleberry Finn. One Saturday morning in the spring, his mother takes him for his first library card. The librarian directs the boy’s little brothers to picture books and the boy himself to the junior section. Just when he is certain that section contains more books for babies, he chances upon a volume titled R is for Rocket by someone he has never heard of, Ray Bradbury.

            The boy uses his brand new library card to check the book out. At home he spends the rest of Saturday and part of Sunday reading. For the first time he understands irony, when a time traveler changes history by stepping on a prehistoric butterfly in “A Sound of Thunder.” For the first time he identifies with a character, the boy whose father flies into the sun in “Rocket Man.” Best of all, the language in the book is as fantastic and compelling and readable as anything he has ever read. For the first time in his life the boy thinks, “I’d like to write stories.”

            R is for Rocket becomes this boy’s gateway to the infinite world of books, imagination, and ideas. In weekly trips to the branch library he discovers other writers, from Asimov to Baldwin to Williams (Tennessee and John A.), from Gibran to LeRoi Jones before he was Amiri Baraka. Eventually the boy moves on to the classics, to popular writers and all kinds of stories. His TV time now includes Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He begins writing his own stories, trying to sell at thirteen and making his first sale at eighteen.

            Fast forward forty plus years. With undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, the boy is now a professor, fiction writer, and playwright. Imagine his delight when the literary center on whose board he sits selects Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as the book the entire community will read for the NEA’s Big Read Project. Yes, Fahrenheit 451 is the ultimate book about the importance of books and keeping totalitarianism at bay. But for one child who found a particular book at a pivotal moment in his life, the selection is a chance to say, “Thanks, Ray.”

Yours truly,

Gary Earl Ross.

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A professor at the UB EOC, Gary Earl Ross is the author of two short story collections, The Wheel of Desire and Shimmerville, and the play Matter of Intent, winner of the 2005 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.