At the bottom of the high street, near the end of a slow sloping hill, and wedged between a chip shop and a charity shop, was the enchanted place where I met my destiny: a bookshop such as is so often nowadays only found in stories. Dark-windowed and opaque-doored, it declared itself a seller and buyer of second-hand books, beckoning in passers-by with a drifting aroma of sweetness and mould – the signature scent of the hapless book lover, and hellishly hard to resist.
We had come – my girlfriend and I – to sell a huge pile of textbooks, but had blown a tyre upon arrival and were now stranded amongst the shelves; forced to wait for the repair vehicle beside the temptation of illustrated hardbacks and the treachery of first editions.
A bookshop is a dangerous place. You can lose yourself in it. And not just figuratively.
Behind the neat space at the front for the popular reads and easy sellers, and past the sales counter where the truly antique and vintage gathered to flaunt themselves, this one took a sudden sharp stumble into a tight corridor, funnelling unwary (although not unwilling) readers towards an unknown destiny in the dim distance beyond.
The corridor – alive with the fragrance of aged paper – drew readers into a series of uncountable rooms, each one an enigma of precarious stacking that both teased and frustrated, suggesting but not necessarily revealing the mysterious object of your desire.
It was here, in fear of the impoliteness of infinite browsing, that I really set my mind to the task: find one single thing to buy. Ignoring the pleas of romantic poetry and the siren call of yet another edition of something already owned, I drifted towards a small set of shelves, plain and undistinguished, and yet sturdy and discreetly promising.
I could almost hear it calling to me. The haunting novel of a summer of terror and wonder. Ray Bradbury. Dandelion Wine. The title was evocative enough that I didn’t need further convincing, but the cover art with its green-hued bottle of enticing horrors pushed me over the edge.
I’d lost my dad a few months earlier, just weeks after starting a relationship that I couldn’t tell anyone about, and a summer of terror and wonder struck a chord with me. I was twenty-one to Douglas Spaulding’s twelve, half a century and a continent away from his tennis shoes and small-town rituals, and yet I felt the same enchantment, the same magic coursing through my veins, the same desire to run and shout and know what was out there! I also felt the same indefinable fear, a constant tingle beneath my skin that spoke of change and loss and monsters that are real and uncontrollable. All – all! – wrapped up in a layer of newness and familiarity that was both heartbreak and hope.
READ MORE: A Love Letter To…
I fell in love with Ray Bradbury right then. His words were sorcery that bound and transported, that took you away only to bring you back more real than you were before. His stories were like lovers, and they hurt to read; that fluttering pressure in the heart of eyes meeting across a room, the first time your hands touch, the first time you kiss.
I had loved writers before. Many of them, from as soon as I was old enough to understand the concept of ‘author’. The faraway lands of Enid Blyton, the feline dreams of Paul Gallico, the nursery fantasies of A. A. Milne and P.L. Travers. They were dear friends and confidantes, teachers and personal gods. But nothing before had hit me with the dreamy passion of a Bradbury short story. I could taste the dust of Mars, see the transformation as my eyes turned from brown to gold, feel the fear and yearning of an unanswered ringing telephone. I read with joy and trepidation, trembling, and the occasional tear.
Bradbury wrote with a passion that was raw and childlike, his stories filled with curiosity and consequence; the need to look, to know, but with the knowledge that looking would change you, and you could never go back. Because for all his monsters and alien worlds, what Bradbury really wrote about was what it is to be human. His bright summer skies and his red firmament are two sides of the same coin, innocence and knowledge, a universe of possibilities and the desire to stay young forever.
Ray Bradbury was writing about Mars before humanity had made it to the moon, the threat of obliteration casting a shadow over his tales of rocket ships and automated houses. Sunny optimism was tinged with melancholy, and his endings were beautiful and horrifying and inspiring in equal measure. There is a mythic quality to the shape of his stories, a deceptive lightness that transcends genre. They are modern day fairy tales, the cherished memories of things that never happened.
Ray Bradbury’s words, his works, are timeless. They endure, even as technology grows and the world threatens to crumble around us. Perhaps, if we keep reading, we can be young again, we can find that self we thought lost, and put all our joy and energy and love into what really matters. As humanity ages, as our collective wisdom fails us, as we begin to slide into despair, maybe we need to pause and look back. Mars will be there, waiting for us when we’re ready, but right now perhaps we just need to remember what it is to be twelve years old again, on the first day of an endless summer, with the awe of our own potential gazing back at us through the pages of a book. And we need to take our new tennis shoes – and run!