Twice Told Tales

My apologies to Hawthorne for borrowing his title, but it fits. A tale is a story, and a good story is worth telling twice and sometimes many times over. There are family stories everyone in a family has heard countless times. So I am astonished that I so often hear someone say “Oh, I read that book and gave it away.”

“Wasn’t it any good?”

“No. It was great, but I read it.”

Now my grandchildren – eight of them – have no such short-sighted view of stories. They like stories, and the ones they like most they also like often. Not twice told tales but countless told tales. Two of them, when they were little girls, came for sleep-overs and never cared if they were sent to bed early as long as bedtime was also story time. Long before they were old enough to attend school they could easily list stories they’d heard since they were old enough to listen.

So what’s the point? Simple. Without stories our lives make less sense. You wouldn’t get to kiss a toad and turn him into a prince or climb a giant beanstalk or fly or learn why it’s important not to cry wolf when there is no wolf. And if any story is worth telling once, it’s worth telling again and again.

A movie is a story too. Most people I think see some movies once and that’s enough. But if the movie is “To Kill A Mockingbird” you are likely to buy it and watch it several times. Why? Because it’s a good story. Good enough so that you find something more there every time you view it. Books are even more engaging and deeper than movies. In movies you aren’t allowed to see well into a character’s mind, discerning emotions, secret thoughts or fears, but in novels, short stories and poems you often become a part of the story and develop strong opinions about the people there. Some you love. Some you hate. Some you love to hate. But you come to understand them as you might endeavor to understand real people.

Now you can sit on any bar stool in any saloon in any country on earth and I promise, you will hear some stories. Some might even be good. Human beings make sense of the world through stories. Yet, we are losing them. Not just that people are giving away their books but they don’t read them in the first place. And you might say books are passe but you would be wrong. Printed stories will remain as long as there are people.

I believe today’s difficulty with stories is not just in the telling of them, but storage. The place we put them – the mind and memory, the book, the jump drive or other electronic device. The mind is the most secure place and  usually lasts until death. But second only to the mind is a book. It’s secure and lasts for generations. Electronic storage is fickle and subject to change. And then there’s that delete key.

So, my point is this, keep your books. Not only can you read them again and again, but they are friendly. They feel good, they smell good and very often become an important part of your life. If I glance up from my office desk at the wall-to-ceiling bookcase surrounding me, I see on a top shelf books of “The Famous Writers Course.” I paid what for me as a very young man was a king’s ransom for these books, only to later learn they were a scam. But I kept them, and they taught me an early lesson I’ve never forgotten – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t. And after nearly fifty years, I’ve even come to forgive them. But son of a gun, I had to learn to write on my own. However,  writing is a trade. You learn on the job. And you don’t get to start at the top.

I’ve lost count of the book signings I’ve done. Afterwards, when the massive crowds of thousands have dwindled, there is often a young man waiting to speak with me privately. He confides, “I’m writing a book too.” I congratulate him and ask about it. He usually confesses he hasn’t got very far and wants to ask me for advice. But I ask him a question instead, “What are you reading?” More times than you might think possible he answers, “Oh, I don’t read much.”

Go ahead and fail mathematics, science, health, PE, history, geography and social studies. You can overcome it by paying attention and studying throughout life, but if you’re not a reader you just failed yourself. Schooling may or may not help you, depending on how much effort you make. But if you’re not an avid reader you have a big hole in your head. Fill it up.

And then, keep it and pass it on. Stories help us make sense of our lives.