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The power in stories that are told to us

“Modernity and electronic media in particular is killing the storyteller. ‘When electricity came,’ as they say in Ireland, ‘the fairies flew out the window.’” – Richard Hamilton in “Tell me a story,” Aeon Magazine

Wikipedia graphic

Wikipedia graphic

While reading Richard Hamilton’s article about storytelling, I began thinking about how often my parents read me stories, beginning with the old fairy tales. Hamilton quotes folklorist Joseph Bruchac about the spellbinding power of the story when a person hears it being told: “Unlike the insect frozen in amber, a told story is alive… The story breathes with the teller’s breath.”

When my parents and other great storytellers told stories, the stories came alive because of voice tone, volume, pacing, facial expressions, gestures, and the slight variations in the tale that were being dynamically tailored to the moment and to my reactions. Ghost stories told on camping trips could become really scary when the storyteller merged them in with the landscape we saw in the flickering light of the campfire.

The old myths we read, captured in the figurative amber of the printed page or the Kindle screen were once communicated from storyteller to storyteller. They changed in the telling as did many of the legends we have inherited here in the United States from Indian Nations. Time, audience and circumstances impacted the tale. They lived in the moment with those hearing them.

As authors, we know we cannot exactly duplicate (on Kindle or paperback) the aliveness of a story the way a storyteller can. We hope our words, combined with the readers’ imaginations, will make up for the lack of our oral tradition in an Internet world. I am pleased, of course, that two of my books (“Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire” and “Emily’s Stories) are available as audiobooks. When the narrators do their work well, the audio book can take one back to their childhood days and duplicate a bit of the pleasure of hearing a story told.

When I’m doing research, I dislike podcasts and videos with a passion. Why? Because my eyes can scan a printed page or a PC screen for the information I need much faster than an audio or video discussion of the same subject will provide it.  Whether it’s the Internet or video game or cell phone texts or something else, we’re all (it seems) developing shorter and shorter attention spans.

Yet audio books are very popular these days even though they take more time to listen to than it would take for a reader to go through the Kindle or paperback version. I suspect a lot of people are multitasking. They’re driving to work while listening to the book. That’s good and bad, I guess. They enjoy more books: that’s good. Their attention isn’t focused on the story: that’s bad.

As an author, I hope that the audio book narrator’s power of delivering a good story will partly compensate for the fact that the listener is watching traffic and maybe even exchanging small talk with others in the car. We don’t kid ourselves when we write stories to be read and/or stories to be told: we know most of our readers and listeners consider stories as a luxury rather than a necessity. We’re happy that people enjoy the stories even though the distractions around them are taking away some of those stories’ power.

What about you? Do you listen to audio books for the experience of hearing a story read to you by a powerful narrator or do you listen to them because that’s the only way you can squeeze novels into a busy schedule? And, when the story is one that resonates with you, do you try to find time to listen to it in a quiet room with no other distractions, almost the way many of us heard stories when we were young?


Available on Kindle and as an audio book

Available on Kindle and as an audio book

Malcolm R. Campbell’s three-story set, narrated by actress Kelley Hazen, is available directly from Audible or from the book’s Audible listing on Amazon.

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