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Of the authors who died in 2012, none were more emblematic of the times than Ray Bradbury, the science-fiction writer. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, envisaging a time when books were ritually burned for the dangerous ideas they contained, haunted the many debates over censorship and free speech that rocked the US, the Arab world, India and other countries.
But Bradbury never saw Fahrenheit 451 as a censorship tract. His fans knew what he was taking on — the dangers, as he saw it, of the “glass teat” of television, the medium that was replacing books in his mind. The third of the Holy Trinity of modern storytelling, the internet, was not his milieu; even in his last years, Bradbury refused to accept that ebooks and online reading might be the future of story.
His rejection of a certain kind of technology was balanced by his prescience: the problem with television, he said, was that it replaced genuine information with an endless stream of factoids. Luckily for him, he remained innocent of social media networks (Twitter, Facebook) and the present debates on information overload. What he left behind was not just The Martian Chronicles, some great horror classics, and “Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner”. He was also the last of his kind, the author as superior hack writer, churning out stories for the love of the tale, without much smoothing of edges or style, and yet delivering far more than the increasingly vapid pulp fiction of modern-day bestsellers.
We lost two great poets: Adrienne Rich and Wislawa Szymborska. One spoke of the need to dive “into the wreck”, to go deep into memory and history, personal and otherwise, in order to understand the world better. The other wrote memorably of the beauty of ordinary things, a beauty that survived even dictators, even concentration camps, even death.
Gore Vidal’s passing was a reminder that an age had passed, the age of a certain kind of man who ruled American letters. He had a full life in writing, moving from journalism, essays and pamphleteering to ambitious novels (Julian, The City and The Pillar, Kalki), and he was an accomplished screenplay writer. There was little separation between his political life and his writing life — the one fed off the other, and this was true of his very active personal life as well. To borrow a phrase from Tom Wolfe, he was a man in full, even though the popularity of his books had waned by the time of his death.
For Bengalis – and many Indians – the passing of Sunil Gangopadhyay marked the year with sadness. Gangopadhyay shifted gear between his poetry – the lyrical, evocative poems to Neera – and the novels, which varied greatly between the subtle and the sharp, and the unabashedly popular, especially the later books written in hurried prose. He was mourned by many for his personal charm, and his ability to be a gentle but always engaged mentor, and he carried his erudition with a complete lack of arrogance or self-consciousness. His life was not without controversy; he had disappointed some with his lukewarm stance on free speech, for instance. But perhaps the best obituary for Sunil Gangopadhyay was to be found in the pavement bookstores of Kolkata, where his books are always available, always in demand, alongside old editions of Krittibas, the journal he started for poets and poetry. To quote another poet, Roque Dalton, he believed that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
“We have the privilege of speech in societies where it is rare to have that privilege,” Carlos Fuentes said of himself and other Mexican writers in an interview many years ago. He dreamed in Spanish (“I also make love in Spanish,” as he said) and his books spanned and ultimately went beyond Mexican history. In a different interview, he nailed at least one aspect of why the writer writes; talking about Mexico, Fuentes said: “I will never understand it fully, and that is why I write so much about it, in order to try to understand it.”
Of a different order, and in her way equally influential, was Helen Gurley Brown, whose Sex and the Single Girl became a bestseller rivalling the feminist classics. As the editor of Cosmopolitan, she left her views – chiefly about the joy of sex, and then some – firmly imprinted on the lives of young women everywhere.
Maurice Sendak left, to see for himself where the wild things were, after a combative, grumbly public life. His books were not just influential; they were, like the old fairy tales, classics for children that reached into their nightmares and their darkest corners. His illustrations captured childhood, for many. Donald J Sobol was perhaps less well-known but equally loved: his once-popular Encyclopedia Brown introduced a boy detective. He wrote his series as puzzles, for children to solve, and that was an idea ahead of its time — the belief that “the young” had brains, and could use them.