Death doesn’t exist. It never did, it never will. But we’ve drawn so many pictures of it, so many years, trying to pin it down, comprehend it, we’ve got to thinking of it as an entity, strangely alive and greedy. All it is, however, is a stopped watch, a loss, an end, a darkness. Nothing.
–Something Wicked This Way Comes
As I’ve mentioned, the county library in the small town closest to the farm where I grew up did not have what one would call a particularly robust Science Fiction and Fantasy section. I think it was something like four or five shelves of hardbound collections (Hitchcock Presents featured prominently) and a dimestore-style wire rack where dozens of flimsy, 150 to 175 page paperbacks were crammed in no particular order. The librarians (both part-time organists at their respective churches) didn’t have any particular love of the genre, so the shelves were rarely troubled with new arrivals or current bestsellers; Tolkein was there, of course (two copies of each book, three Hobbits if you counted the one in the children’s section, one Silmarillion), and C.S. Lewis. A row of early Heinlein and Asimov. One Henry Kuttner collection. The wire rack, I remember, boasted pretty much everything Edgar Rice Burroughs ever wrote, but good luck trying to figure out the order they were supposed to be read.
I didn’t need luck. I read everything they had. Usually twice. To me, a proper standalone novel will always be a lean, 175 pages of pocket-sized art, and the 300-600+ pages needed for a ‘proper’ novel today seems… bloated. Decadent. A whopper, when a simple cheeseburger would do you just as well.
Somewhere in the midst of my assault on that wire rack, I pulled out The Illustrated Man. I don’t remember specifically what struck me about those stories (I inexplicably juxtapose that collection with Heinlein’s Assignment in Eternity, which I must have read at roughly the same time), but it lead me to Fahrenheit 451 — the best and perhaps only suggested further reading those librarians ever gave me.
And in the midst of that book, I realized I wanted to write, and why.
Everyone must leave something in the room or left behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.
I never met the man. I wish I had. I would have said thanks.
Most of all, I admire his life; long and full of stories told, libraries championed, and writers inspired.
For him: the end, the nothing, the darkness.
For us: the loss.