The vital importance of stories in the human experience

Every so often, I stand in a room full of people where my work ranks least important.

Every artist, writer, and performer encounters it at some point. The conversation turns to careers, and everyone lists their respective professions. Among engineers, health care professionals, educators, construction and maintenance tradesmen, business owners, and others, I take a deep breath and say, “I design magazines and write fantasy novels.”

The reaction varies. Sometimes it’s sincere interest. Sometimes it’s an embrace as a fellow professional. But sometimes it’s that too-familiar smirk and a comment about how nice it must be to have a hobby as a job.

On the one hand … yes, it’s nice to have a creative job that I enjoy.

On the other hand … no. My work is more than a hobby, and it is just as vital to society as buildings, infrastructure, health care, education, and the myriad businesses that comprise a community.

When I say as much to skeptics, there’s a moment of incredulity. But I don’t really believe the books I write (fiction books, no less!) carry the same societal impact as other careers, do I?

Ahem … yes, actually. I very much believe stories are vital to the human experience.

I don’t have to reach far for an example. Just ask Helen Fagin if stories are important.

Fagin died in March of this year at the age of 104, but she left behind a powerful testimony about the power of story. The Holocaust survivor shared how reading Margaret Mitchell’s classic Gone With the Wind became a life-or-death endeavor after Nazis forced her and her family into the Warsaw Ghetto.

In a letter published in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, Fagin shares her experience living in Nazi-occupied Poland.

“At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death.

“There, I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential — what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility.”

An underground exchange of smuggled books circulated the Warsaw Ghetto, and Fagin grasped a copy of Gone With the Wind. Under the cover of night, she would read the novel, and then she would orally retell the story to others.

“As I ‘told’ them the book, they shared the loves and trials of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, of Ashley and Melanie Wilkes. For that magical hour, we had escaped into a world not of murder but of manners and hospitality. All the children’s faces had grown animated with new vitality.”

If Fagin got caught with the text, she risked severe punishment or death. A story was worth dying for.

A story also was worth living for among those imprisoned by Nazis. It gave people relief and escape from unimaginably inhumane conditions.

That’s a lot of worth.

Hear Helen Fagin read the full text of the letter, in her own voice, below:

A Velocity of Being: 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin reads her letter about how books save lives from Maria Popova on Vimeo.

The role stories play in our lives isn’t limited to anecdotal importance. Researchers have linked stories to improving both physical and psychological wellbeing. One study found that hospitalized children who listened to storytellers showed increased oxytocin and decreased cortisol and pain.

“One storytelling session with hospitalized children [led] to an increase in oxytocin, a reduction in cortisol and pain, and positive emotional shifts during a free-association task,” researchers reported. “These multi-modal findings support evolutionary theories of storytelling and demonstrate its physiological and psychological effects under naturalistic stress conditions.”

Fictional stories also help cement a sense of empathy among members of society. When readers/viewers/listeners are introduced to fictional characters, they can build interest and investment in those characters and their circumstances. Fictional people and situations allow the onlooker to vicariously experience the character’s life through their perspective.

When those characters and perspectives are from different cultures, social classes, or backgrounds, those fictional experiences can build empathy and understanding.

“Engaging with fictional stories and the characters within them might help us better understand our real-world peers,” writes Raymond Mar in the abstract to his 2018 research paper Stories and the Promotion of Social Cognition. “Because stories are about characters and their interactions, understanding stories might help us to exercise our social cognitive abilities.”

People build emotional bonds with fictional characters. That, in turn, helps us build bonds with people around us.

Art may imitate life, but it also influences life. Look at the social phenomenon caused by season four of Netflix’s Stranger Things. An emotionally charged scene with Max featured Kate Bush’s 1985 song “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God).” During its original release almost 40 years ago, it broke into the U.S. Top 30; after being featured in Stranger Things, it hit the U.S. Top 5. In June, it hit No. 1 on the Billboard Global 200.

Stranger Things also influenced dedicated viewers to seek guitars similar to the Warlock that Eddie uses to play Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” in the season four finale.

It’s not an unusual phenomenon. People tend to mirror interests when they want to bond with others. If a friend is a fan of a book or a band or a TV show, it’s normal for a person to read or listen or watch. At our core, humans are pack animals. We emulate others to form bonds – even with fictional characters.

Stories help us feel connected. They can make us feel understood and not alone. Stories help us make sense of our place in societies, cultures, and the world at large. They help us relate to one other. They build bonds and break barriers. They entertain.

Through stories, we are able to explore and expand and define our sense of self and our humanity.

Perhaps Helen Fagin said it best in her letter: “There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

Give me your tired, your worn, your ugly books

The tweet appeared in my feed this morning, shared by a fellow book lover:

My first instinct was to agree. After all, beautifully designed and gorgeously bound books are a delight.

But I froze mid-nod. Am I, too, haunted by those pretty editions?

I appreciate beauty – I pull off the road to watch sunsets and stood in awe at art museums. But when it comes to surrounding myself with an aesthetic, I don’t want the adorned and well-kept.

Give me the ugly books. I’ll take the tattered, the dog-eared, the water-warped, the bent-covered, and the spine-broken.

Every year, I follow the used book sale circuit in my city and surrounding communities. I hunt for the books with ragged spines – the ones that have been read repeatedly and well-loved. I don’t mind the cheesy covers of outdated paperback editions, or the wrinkled pages of once a water-logged text, or the disintegrating binding of an aged hardcover.

As long as the ink is still readable, I’ll adopt the ragged editions.

A tattered edition of Journeys Through Bookland I adopted from a used book sale.

Not that I don’t have a reverence for brand new books. There’s a special kind of joy that comes from holding a freshly printed edition and cracking the spine for the first time, waiting for that satisfying pop of the binding’s glue, followed by that vicarious “ahhhh” as if you had cracked your own back.

But new editions don’t need nice covers for me to buy them and love them. (To be honest, the only editions I dodge are the movie tie-in covers. But if I really want the book and it’s the only edition at hand, I’ll even buy those ugly beasts and love them.)

Friends could always point to my bookshelves and say, “Look at all of the ornate 19th and early 20th century editions on the shelf. You love the pretty editions!”

It’s true. I have hardcovers with gilt edges and foil stamps and leather bindings. Not a single one is in pristine condition. They’ve all been read and slightly battered. Each is past its prime. But still wonderfully relevant, and carrying the character that only age and use can bestow.

They’re the silver foxes of the literary world. Growing more handsome as they age and show a few flaws.

Used books hold an especially dear place in my heart. Not only do they tell stories, but they also have stories.

I once bought a copy of The Little Prince, and tucked in the back was a sympathy card with a touching note for a family who lost a child. There ere no addresses or surnames on the card for me to return it, so after reading the book I tucked the card back inside. It’s part of the book’s personal story now.

I found a box of books in my attic several years after we bought the house, and a copy of Classics for Vocal Expression is stuffed full of loose papers – mostly shopping lists and what appears to be practice correspondence. I left all of those loose pages in place, keeping them tucked between the pages where I found them.

Collectors might cringe at the overstuffed, distorted spine of Classics for Vocal Expressions. The deformity makes it one of my favorites from that discovered box.

Then there was the tattered edition of Journeys Through Bookland I found at a used book sale, with its detached cover and deteriorated spine and loose leafs. When I reached the front of the line to pay for my stack of treasures, one of the volunteers working at the table lamented that the book shouldn’t have been put out for sale. Another volunteer offered to let me take it for free. But I paid the 50 cents expected for hardcovers, and it has a home now on my living room shelf.

I haven’t read that edition of Journeys Through Bookland, but it’s my favorite. (I have another edition that’s intact; it came from a box of books passed down through my dad’s side of the family.) Sometimes I pull the battered edition off the shelf to caress the cover or carefully turn its frayed pages.

My goal is to be a Statue of Liberty for worn books – let me stand as the symbol of their new home, offering them a place of permanence and acceptance. To paraphrase (and amend) Emma Lazarus’ iconic sonnet: Give me the tired, the poor, the wretched books. Send these, the homeless, to me. I lift my lamp to read them.