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Hoping for a happy non-ending

'Fahrenheit 451' author Ray Bradbury helps Long Beach library supporters celebrate a victory against closure.

September 07, 2008|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

When science-fiction author Ray Bradbury spoke out Saturday against a Long Beach budget-cutting proposal to close its main library, the theme of one his most famous books, "Fahrenheit 451," became keenly relevant to the crowd of about 300.

It was Bradbury's love of books and libraries that spawned his disturbing 1951 novel that told of a frightening future of censorship and book-burning. And it was this love that brought him to the Long Beach library's main auditorium to inspire supporters to continue their fight to keep open the second-largest civic library in Los Angeles County.

On Friday, library advocates claimed an important victory when the Long Beach City Council's Budget Oversight Committee voted unanimously to remove a proposal to shut it down, and instead recommended a plan that would close it on Sundays and Mondays but keep it open the rest of the week. A vote is still pending before the full City Council.

Seated in a wheelchair on stage, the 88-year-old spinner of tales of robots, Martians and wondrous tomorrows autographed dozens of copies of "Fahrenheit 451" presented to him by fans and advocates of the aging, 133,000-square-foot downtown structure.

"Any time you need me, you can call on me," he told them. "I'll come again to help you to make this library survive."

They leaned forward in their seats, hanging on every word as Bradbury, under a shock of white hair and flanked by vases of colorful paper flowers, recalled how, as a boy, there was hardly a day when he could not be found lurking about in library stacks full of books that fired his imagination.

He wrote "Fahrenheit 451" on a typewriter he rented for 10 cents per half-hour in a basement room at UCLA. "I said to myself, by God, this is going to be my office," he recalled, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

For inspiration, he said, "I'd run up the stairs and run my fingers over the books, then run back down to the basement with quotes" for his fictional characters.

Nine dollars and 80 cents later, he emerged with the first draft of "Fahrenheit 451."

That kind of talk energized library supporters including Carol Collins, a leader of the widespread effort to stop city officials from shuttering the building. She said Bradbury deserved some of the credit for the reprieve.

"He has always been against censorship, and the biggest censorship you can do is close down the main library," she said. "Ray Bradbury is a friend of books and libraries."

Long Beach City Councilwoman Tonia Reyes Uranga, agreed. "We may not be burning our books in Long Beach," she said, "but we've been trying to get rid of them just as fast. It's ridiculous."

Bradbury entered the Long Beach book controversy in July with a personal visit to mourn the pending closure of Acres of Books, a cultural landmark that had been open since 1934. In a letter published in the Press-Telegram, Bradbury warned that the store's closure combined with the loss of the main library would effectively "remove access to over 1.5 million books from one square mile of the city!"

Facing a general fund deficit of $17 million, city officials initially proposed closing the main library, which costs about $4 million a year to operate. In November, voters will be presented with a $571-million infrastructure improvement bond measure that would include about $20 million for a new main library. Where it would be built is unclear, but its current home at Long Beach's Civic Center Plaza is one possibility.

The initial plan, however, was not first disclosed for public comment and triggered a backlash from downtown residents and their supporters. Of particular concern was the effect on the estimated 27,000 children from low-income families the library serves.

"They forgot about democracy and process," Uranga said.

Bradbury would not argue with any of that.

The audience rewarded his dedication to their cause -- and his 88th birthday -- with a second standing ovation, and a chocolate bundt cake with a bright red star-shaped balloon attached.

"I'll be back to help you," Bradbury said, "the next time you need me."


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