Wednesday, June 20, 2012

We Need Our Stories

Stories.  We devour them like candy, don't we?  Sure we do.  We read novels, novellas, biographies, short stories, biographical magazine stories, etc...   The number of books we (Americans) have access to is staggering.  In 2003, UC Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems tried to estimate how many books (including those out of print) exist. The Library of Congress alone contains about 26 million books.   Based on this number, and a mathematical formula which is sightly beyond my grasp, they estimate the world stock of original books to be between 74 million and 175 million books.

We're surrounded by such material as if we have a constitutional right to stories.  We've literally made stories more accessible to our citizens than food, shelter, and health care.  Think about it, tthose of us who can't afford food, can go to a library and partake of any story on the shelf. 

If we don't want to go to daunting effort of reading, we can simply buy a ticket to a movie, slide a DVD into the player, or simply click on the tube to watch story after story regarding any subject matter we want from love stories to espionage thrillers to westerns and any other genre you can fathom.

Even video games utilize a loose form of storytelling to draw the player into the game's world.  The latest version of Max Payne, for example, begins with the character mourning over his late wife's grave, then takes the player through a murder mystery via a number of shoot outs, car chases, etc...

While many of the delivery systems for stories may be relatively new, we've been telling stories a good 15,000 years before Africans made the first arrow.   That's right, the first Neanderthal cave paintings were discovered in Spain, and have  been radiocarbon dated to be between 43,500 and 42,300 years old.    They were charcoal renderings of seal hunting grounds, and may be the first recorded tale of "the one that got away."  Since then, we've been spewing a pretty steady stream of stories; first via pictograms and oral tradition, then when that wasn't enough to ensure accuracy from one generation to another, we developed alphabets and written languages.

Of course, even with written languages to work with, mass production of books was impractical.  Monks, and other dedicated artisans would spend days painstakingly copying pages by hand in order to produce additional volumes of an original work.  Thus, books were primarily owned by the church and the aristocratic elite.   Commoners still depended heavily on oral tradition, songs, and travelers to satisfy their hunger for stories.

This changed, somewhat, in 1450, when Johannes Gutenberg's printing press became operational.   This series of blocks and punches reduced the time it took to copy a manuscript, most notably The Bible, from a year down to mere days.  Even so, while books were more affordable, they were still out of reach of most people; a Bible sold for what an average clerk would make in three years.   Even given the expense, scholars estimate that over one thousand such presses were in use through out Europe by 1500.

Over the years, the block and punch gave way to an even faster moveable type press, which dramatically increased the publication rate of books, and later; newspapers, pamphlets, and magazines.  Thanks to ever blossoming technology, we have access to new newspapers everyday and new magazines and books every single week. 

Going to a book store each Tuesday, to see what new books  are for sale, is a luxury which was unfathomable for most of human history.  Yet, the weekly schedule has become common place to today's publishers, retailers, and readers.  Likewise, we know new movies will hit theaters every Friday, comics (for those who read them) hit the market every Wednesday, and, thanks to a vast array of cable channels and on demand content, there are at least a few new offerings on TV every day and night.  One could almost make the claim that the story is the single most produced and consumed commodity in the world.

This being the case, an interesting question comes to mind.

Why do we possess such a need for stories?

Traditionally the answer people give is, "escapism," the idea being that we partake of stories in order to momentarily escape our own reality.  While I think escapism is part of the answer, I have trouble viewing it as the entire answer. 

Personally, I live with certain challenges, sure.  However, socio economically speaking, I'm far better off than a large portion of the world's inhabitants.  I have shelter, access to food, access to medical care, etc...  Yet, even with comparably little reason to escape from my reality, I'm still a story junky.  Thus, there has to be some motivator other than escapism which fuels our need for stories.

C.S. Lewis once said, "Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become."

Now, many people argue about what "literature" is, but I'm not going to get into that.  Perhaps, Lewis' idea can be applied to stories, in general though.  Perhaps, stories, even those as low brow as sitcoms, make us think a way in which we otherwise wouldn't.  Perhaps, learning about; characters, settings, and situations; foreign to our everyday experience, expands our minds.  If so, then is it any wonder that as stories became more accessible, innovations in; technology, medicine, and almost every significant field of endeavor; blossomed across the board?

What do you think?

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