Put Down The Novel: How Communal Storytelling Offers More
I. The Line at the Bookstore
This is the exciting time of year where readers become evangelists. We start buying books not just for those who share our love of reading, but also everyone else. “Oh, you took one Shakespeare class in college ten years ago?” Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet for you. “You occasionally listen to a true crime podcast?” Sulaiman Addonia’s Silence is My Mother Tongue for you. We aspire to the skillset of a great librarian, but often behave more like a recommendation algorithm—you like this, I bet you’ll like that—then on closer conversation with our giftee realizing, oh, you don’t like everything to do with this, rather you like just one iteration of this, because of some exquisitely personal memory I have no idea of… well, I hope you like that anyway.
The bumper stickers on my fridge include “Reading is sexy,” “Any book worth banning is a book worth reading” and “Books you don’t need in place you can’t find.” All are courtesy of various bookstore check-out lines, where my jouissance upon the threshold of purchase is such that I am subject to unexpected moral crises, but am also an easy mark from anything from stickers to puzzle books sure to add to the genteel half-smiles of my gifts’ recipients.
Maybe, occasionally, we do land on the perfect recommendation that meets someone who is near and dear to us, right in the place where interest meets longing. That person has a little space in their day for reading; they don’t experience guilt at skipping the other books they need to read in favor of this new book. They dive right into pages and experience mirth and curiosity, and they’ll be talking about this book to anyone who will listen.
But we all know our own success rates at picking books that thrill our loved ones. We know that if we give them a bottle of wine, they’ll probably drink it, but if we give them a book, we might as well be giving them an oversized coaster. Nevertheless, the other book-givers I’ve talked to about this, usually shortly before or after my annual guilt-weighing at the checkout line of the local bookshop, assure me: We are the good ones. After all, we’re supporting local business. If our recipient donates their book, all the better; let someone else have their life unquestionably enriched by literature. If they burn it, fine, they got some warmth. If they read it, wahahaha, we’ve succeeded! We are achieving Nietzsche’s definition of happiness, that of power increasing. We’ve entered their mind, diverted them from one attention-siphoning platform to another, superior platform that we have chosen. Surely this creates a connection between the book-giver and the book-receiver. Then again, maybe not.
II. The Essay That Threw Me
So, if I’m a reader myself, what’s the problem with giving books? Well, naturally, it was a book itself that shook my views on the book, particularly the novel, and its valuing over the oral story. The book is Illuminations, a collection of Walter Benjamin’s essays. It was edited by Benjamin’s friend and fellow cultural critic Hannah Arendt—both of whom were persecuted by the Nazi regime—and the essay itself is “The Storyteller,” written in 1936. In “The Storyteller,” Benjamin explains the figures of the oral storyteller and the novelist through the social conditions from which they emerge. The storyteller is connected to the slow rhythm of handicraft and the communalism surrounding the oral tradition. The novelist is the “solitary individual” who has no practical knowledge and speaks from and to isolation. Images of death and of the fireplace recur throughout Benjamin’s discussion of these two figures, and their relationship to them is one mode of understanding how the storyteller differs from the novelist.
Benjamin opens his discussion of the storyteller with an assertion that she is an extinct or near-extinct figure. Benjamin writes that “the art of storytelling is coming to an end” and that the only way the role can be conceived is by considering two other archaic figures: “the resident tiller of the soil” and “the trading seaman.” The first figure brings with her the “local tales and traditions,” while the second brings the “lore of faraway places,” and naturally, the best storyteller is both, like a master craftsperson who travelled to learn their craft before settling down. With her “orientation toward practical interest,” the storyteller’s tales are often imbued with didactic value in the form of advice, a moral, or a proverb.
These characteristics describe the storyteller as an already-past figure, and this was in 1936. So, is the storyteller gone? Benjamin asserted that the storyteller could only exist with communal experience and the prominent role of the unabbreviated craft in daily life.
The storyteller is borne from communal experience, which she draws upon to tell her stories. By telling them, she also contributes to communal experience by creating it for all present. Lastly, her audience listens, so that they too might retell the story, and, when they engage in this retelling, both relay the communal experience shared and also have a new communal experience in doing so. This recursive cycle of experiences is also crucial to the crafting of the story itself, which, to Benjamin, approaches perfection with each successive recitation.
The craft element is also part of the communal experience, because when we listen to stories, we have our hands—a privilege we lack when reading a novel. Benjamin described the rhythm of crafting by hand as providing “the web in which the gift of storytelling is cradled.” Storytelling is a fireside activity, full of shared warmth, and while the storyteller does most of the speaking, the audience engages in response and interjection. The story is a mechanism for everyone in the space to grow closer.
Benjamin’s most famous essay is “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and one of his main preoccupations was the unintended consequence of the decline of handcraft: “The role of the hand in production has become more modest, and the place it filled in storytelling lies waste.” With craft diminished, Benjamin saw his time as becoming devoid of story and cautioned that the “gift of listening was lost.” Our memories also suffer, as the reader, unlike the listener, is not burdened by tasks of memory. With her hands and ears disengaged, she is able to refer to the pages of the text, in contrast to the storyteller’s listener. Yet despite being less occupied, the reader is less relaxed than the listener, and does not envelop the novel into her memory. She “destroys the material” and “swallows it up.” The reader will not retell the novel.
What’s more, she is unable to tell the events of her own life: “People can’t tell stories” and there is no longer “an ability to exchange experiences.” This inability to share experiences results in the death of communal experience in favor of individual experience. After World War I, “men returned from the battlefield… silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience. What ten years later was poured out in the flood of war books was anything but experience that goes from mouth to mouth.”
According to Benjamin, the novel’s success in the modern era was based on two main changes in social conditions. First was the end of craft and hand-based work, and second was the rise of mass printing. These two changes, both manifestations of an increasing role of mechanization in society, create the isolated individuals who then become novelists and readers. Like the story, craft weaves generations together, and allows for self-forgetfulness. Craft brings “soul, eye, and hand… into connection.” Its decline results in their disconnection. Thus, without craft, we are separated from the people before and after us, and are also not allowed to forget time. States of deep relaxation, which stem from handiwork and a time in which “time did not matter,” have vanished. Even if one does manage to have such an experience, she is then left unable to convey it to others.
The other major societal change, the emergence of mass printing, does not produce a sense of connection between readers, but rather continues to disperse them farther away from each other. The press brings with it a new phenomenon: information. Information’s “prime requirement is that it appear ‘understandable in itself.’” It flaunts a lack of context; even as it stems from tradition, it repudiates it. In fact, information “does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment.” The reader of a news feed does not commit it to memory and is again left isolated, as she receives no counsel to guide her forward but only information to quickly forget.
These two social conditions, the end of craft and the rise of mass printing and information, both contribute to an individual who is overdetermined in her solitude. This uncounseled solitary individual, “no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns,” is “the birthplace of the novel.” Modern readers might be shocked that Benjamin characterizes what’s typically considered the first novel, Miguel de Cervantes’ seventeenth century picaresque Don Quixote, as “completely devoid of counsel and… not contain[ing] the slightest scintilla of wisdom.”
While the storyteller and his listener engage in self-forgetful and ultimately self-sacrificing action to maintain an oral tradition, the novelist and her reader are blindly selfish, sacrificing the character and then the work itself for no other end than a feeble show at possession. As the novelist owns the character, the reader owns the novel. Their desperation to control their possessions results in their engagement with art being devoid of communal engagement, eking out “shivering li[ves]” cold from isolation. No matter how many novels they set ablaze, the twin blizzards of mechanization and information pound at the door and slide through its cracks, leaving them speechless.
III. Yes, but There Are Eight Nights of Hanukkah and I Need Gifts
There are two rabbis who spend the night debating the existence of G-d, finally arriving at the conclusion that most certainly G-d does not exist. The next morning, one rabbi sees the other walking into synagogue and calls out, “I thought we determined last night that there is no G-d! The other rabbi responds, “What does that have to do with anything?” As do I keep buying books, not just for myself, but in true holiday fashion, for everyone I meet. Yet there is true reckoning to be done. How can we have communal experience with others in our household and beyond?
Another story: The Shemot Rabbah tells us how Moses ended up with his lisp. The story goes that once the pharaoh’s daughter rescued the baby Moses from the river and brought it to her father, he knew very well that the baby was one of the Jews condemned to death, and he didn’t want his daughter to raise the child. But he wanted to make his daughter happy, so he said, well, Jews are greedy for power, so you can’t raise this child, but because I am just, I will give him a test to show you his greed, and if he passes, then yes, you can keep him. He brought out a piece of gold and a burning coal and put them in front of the baby. Babies being attracted to shiny things, little Moses naturally started to put his hand out for the gold, but then G-d intervened: turning his hand so that instead he grabbed the coal, putting it to his mouth and burning his tongue badly yet saving his life. And so the great orator spoke with a lisp.
So how can we move from being fluent in our language to adept in our storytelling? The answer is to try. Let’s try to tell stories. Let’s try to carve spoons and knit scarves. Evidence of our interest in handcraft and storytelling, the old tools of the worker, of the oppressed, and of the survivor, abound in our digital world. When I typed in “how to make a sto…” into a search engine, what was the auto-complete suggestion was not “story,” but “stonecutter.” It was for Minecraft, where stonecutters can be “mixed with any pickaxe” and “generate inside stone mason houses in villages.”
Another medium designed for addiction and generating a sense of distance not just between us and our fellow humans, but between us and our imagined selves, Instagram, uses the term “story” to describe a “reel of snaps” that disappear within twenty-four hours. While eroding our memories, as a wet towel hanging on a door decays the paint, the Instagram story and its role in pop culture, nevertheless reveal our craving for the communal.
Our collective interest in building our world through making craft and spinning stories is the start, and our next step is iterative failure. I once entered a tall tale competition. It was in the mountains of Virginia, and I had made the absurd decision to run a half-marathon that morning and then embark on the six-hour drive with a friend, practicing wild tales we created on the way. Once I found myself staring down the audience, my throat went dry. I managed to tell a kooky epic of far-too-quickly fading scenarios and wrap it with something resembling a final beat. I didn’t place in the competition, but I tried, and days like that where I ran too slow and spoke too quickly are the ones that I’m proud of, because I was trying with my body and my mind.
One of the foundational orators of our world had a lisp, and the vast majority of us can barely tell a story to explain a missed deadline. Yet we should try. When we buy a book, let’s not give it to someone in a mute transference of individual experiences. Instead, let’s use all of our texts, from books to music to digital construction games, to communicate about our individual experiences. That way, in the retelling, we become the storytellers.
Nan Pincus is a writer. She is also the Content Marketing Manager at Long Wharf Theatre, an amateur storyteller, and despite her best intentions, an avid reader.