26 May 2010

Tell Me a Story

Every year, many libraries hold storytelling festivals. It seems an intuitive thing to do. We are all about stories.

Our storytelling festival is, in our modest opinion, a rare and remarkable treat. We have prominent and gifted storytellers from across the country come to spin yarns and sit a spell. The turnout is good, and the attendees leave satisfied. Why this should be so in this age of instant communication and global sophistication is an interesting question. Wouldn't you think we would be too "all that" to sit around hearing tall tales and home-spun lore?

Storytelling is a cultural narrative. It is legend and myth, often without much fact, but a thread of truth. California has its Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Quebec has its Paul Bunyan. Virtually every culture has its stories, and those, for the vast majority of recorded history, were verbally handed down. Its not oral history, except in the most tangential way. It is entertainment, regional flavor and a way of sharing a common bond. It's not all hill-country folkism. New York urbanites have their stories, too.

So how is storytelling different from reading aloud? We have events which include storytimes which are pretty darn impressive. For example, last memorial day we had soldiers come to read to the kids. These guys picked their very favorite book, and read with style and gusto. They took the task very seriously. The kids were smitten, and soldiers had adoring children holding onto hands and pant's legs.

At our recent multicultural festival, we had native speakers from 14 different cultures who read the same book to the crowd in their own language. It was a smashing success. Why would libraries go to the trouble and expense of hiring children's programmers whose programs revolve around storytimes, if a vocal rendition of a book was not considered a high priority? It introduces children to reading and it brings personality to the written word. It makes the sharing of a book an Important Event. The subtle difference between storytime and storytelling has more to do with the telling.

Like books, storytellers bring us ideas, cultures, hopes, humor and the common experience. But theirs is an art of performance and transience. Their method does not depend on a written volume. They convey fine points of a culture in a way that books cannot: they include mannerism, accent, expression, eye contact and gesture in a more pointed delivery. Storytellers are wind-borne carriers of culture - words that remain after the page is gone. The storyteller doesn't just communicate the story, they become the story.

I have, on a couple of occasions, admired a work of chalk pavement art. It is a beautiful work of planning, design, effort and skill. Part of what makes it impressive is knowing that the pleasure is in the now: rain will come, feet will tread, and the ephemeral offering is swept away. You may be tempted to ask "What is the point?" The sidewalk art was meant for you, now - today: a message to you, personally. Books are meant for the impersonal many. Storytelling is for the personal few.

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