Our relationships, marriages and society would improve if we read more stories.
David Sewell McCann’s recent article, Why Storytelling is Way Better than Lecturing your Kids, argues exactly what the title says. A story is a more effective lesson than a lecture. Quite obviously, McCann’s focusing on the relationship between parent and child, imagining the elder as the storyteller and the minor as the listener. I’d like to extend his argument as I change it slightly.
The reason literature exists is because stories are efficient and fun lessons, compact little containers of constructive criticism. We have known this since we started building campfires. Sure, famous orations, homilies and philosophical rants—in fact, philosophy itself—also make up literature. But the heart of literature is fiction, and the point of fiction has always been to offer a lesson that, at least on paper (if you’ll pardon a pun), seems a safe provocation. Accounts of executions and tortures can move us to lunacy, but we’re pretty safe when we imagine ourselves, if we’re reading properly, being taken to the guillotine at the end of A Tale of Two Cities.
We should certainly tell our children stories to explain the complexity (or simplicity, which can also be terribly confusing) of life. But we should also prepare ourselves for our own confrontations, including the moments when our children bring us life’s questions, big and small.
How should we do this?
We should be reading stories. I’m talking about good literary fiction.
I’m not politically correct enough to tell you that all stories are created equal; I love books but think most of them suck. While my favorite writer is Dostoevsky—and while I believe we get a hell of a lot more out of a classic novel than we do from the recent How to Fix Your Marriage self-help book—I’ve certainly taken important life lessons from authors I first read in childhood: Douglas Adams, Lloyd Alexander, E.L. Konigsburg and Judy Blume, among many others. Even if a book flat out stinks, reading is still a better exercise for our minds and spirits than an average talking-to (especially if the speaker is a tool who doesn’t read any books at all).
Our culture, and I’m talking about America now, has a very serious problem with stories. We have one of the most respected literary canons in the world, yet we don’t teach it in our schools. When we admire our writers, a minority admires their ideas; the rest of us like their fame or financial success, and they become a “How did s/he do it?” story. (This isn’t odd. Most people don’t admire Warren Buffet for his savvy, talent or Charlie Rose interviews.)
We no longer really look at fiction as a valuable art, at least not when it’s contained between covers. The world of literary fiction itself has become a strange incestuous bed, with a lot of writers writing for each other, or at least for a college educated demographic worried about what’s postmodern and how to deconstruct it. It all begs a chicken and egg question: are our writers writing for their MFA program buddies (of whom I am one) because the rest of America isn’t reading, or is the rest of America not reading because the writers are writing only for each other?
I honestly don’t care. Great stories exist. They’re being written now, and they were written long ago. I think rational, civil adults who care about their health, reputation, society, economy and culture should have partnerships with the following professionals: a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, a contractor, a seamstress, a cobbler and a bookseller.
If you develop the habit of going to your local bookstore and buying a good story to read, you will gather lessons that will aid your capacity to tell stories yourself as you change your point of view about life’s confrontations. We all feel so isolated these days. When you pick up a book written in the 19th century to learn what trouble husbands and wives had communicating, your isolation is taken to very interesting task. If you think the communication problem you have with your spouse is fucked up, read James Joyce’s The Dead, a short piece with arguably the greatest closing paragraph ever written in English.
Growing up, I knew a lot of men who thought my masculinity was compromised by my love of books. There’s still this macho thing in America that regards reading as idle activity: if you’re a serious, practical and valuable man, you spend your time sanding decks, or you show up each day at 8:55 to take the elevator up the skyscraper. If you read, it’s non-fiction accounts about war and wealth, or it’s Atlas Shrugged, literature’s crack pipe. That mentality has gotten us this far, and here we find ourselves. We share McCann’s article with our friends, try to convince them that stories have power.
Yes. They do. Today, as they have for thousands of years. Although kids are wise enough to understand their value without needing it explained, stories are meant for us all.
Photo by ruifernandes/Flickr