Monday, March 26, 2012

Do We Need Stories?

I've just completed a two-week safari across Texas. I stayed with or visited friendly natives, including Steve Hynd of The Agonist and Newshoggers and a number of long-time friends from other venues. The news was not good for all of them, part of the reason I made the trip.

All of them have stories and represent stories in my life. Sometimes they figured in stories that many others have heard and read, like the story of Wen Ho Lee and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. But, for the most part, their stories are something shared among us and a small number of friends.

So I've been surrounded by stories, and other friends and acquaintences provide me many more.

Maybe that's why I'm not enthralled by fiction. Another friend (many stories) lent me the 19 discs of Moby Dick, to listen to as I crossed boring territory. But none of it was boring. Some was very flat, but that allowed me to see trees, ranches, and windmills in the distance. It also allowed me to realize that land I've thought of as flat, like that between Roswell and Vaughn, New Mexico, isn't flat at all.

There were different types of vegetation, different ways of signing the roads, different roads. The road surfacing in Texas is much noisier than that in New Mexico. Probably gives better traction during rains, but it was a relief to get back to quieter travel. Different buildings, different ways of orienting buildings relative to the roads. And wonderful wildflowers once I hit the Hill Country! Still haven't uploaded the photos to this computer; maybe tomorrow.

So I didn't listen to a single one of those Moby Disks. Mostly I didn't listen to anything radio or cd, although I spent some time with Rush Limbaugh (very repetitive) and Faure's nocturnes and barcarolles (for which, thanks to Jim!).

I don't read many novels. People have asked me about this. I don't have full answers; it's hard for me to find a novel that intrigues me enough to read. Sometimes I read a bestseller that I think I should read, frequently disappointing, and sometimes a trashy novel that goes quickly. One problem I have in reading novels is that if they engage me sufficiently, somewhere past about two-thirds through the book, I have to finish it, even if it means staying up until two in the morning.

I have a large backlog of books to read, mostly nonfiction, biography and history. I bought a novel today that contains a large historical component. I also bought two nonfiction books.

It seems to me that there are stories everywhere: those of our friends and the institutions we attach ourselves to; the everyday workings of our communities and the world; and the natural world. On that last, I realized on this trip through Texas wildflowers that they mostly grow in recently disturbed soil; where what we call weeds grow. And I met a little boy whose knowledge of dinosaurs and wonder at my watch exceeded mine.

Or the LBJ story I told you in a previous post and which we Americans still haven't come to terms with.

So I was pleased to read Tim Parks's consideration of whether we need stories of the kind in novels. His reasons are different from the ones I've given, but are not incompatible with them.


troutsky said...

I rarely get past the first chapter of most novels. Somewhere beyond Philip Roth, John Updike and David Foster Wallace it seemed self-examination became narcissism and stories became psychology, pathos pathology.

Doesn't stop me from trying to write them..

Peter said...

I don't have time for fiction - there's too much in the real world that I want to read about before I make space in my limited personal time for make-believe.

That said, I did finally get around to reading Moby Dick last summer (maybe the one before? My how time flies!). I had heard the Studio360 episode devoted to it, and my close friend was due to teach it to her high school English class, so I though it was about time.

I can't recommend it enough. The fiction part of it only occupies about 1/3. The rest is more or less a historical account of the New England whale fishery. Being from New England, maybe this holds my attention more than it would yours.

Alternately, you might consider Two Years Before The Mast. It's the account of a young New Englander (of wealth) who signs on as a lowly deck hand on a trading ship in the 1830's. They go around South America and conduct trading missions on the California coast - but this is when California was still part of Mexico. It's a fascinating window into a part of history that doesn't see much light. The author went on to a legal career specializing in admiralty law, defending sailors from the predations of tyrannical captains. Many of his cases are still established precedent. Fascinating stuff, very populist.

I'd never hold it against someone if they decided Moby Dick wasn't worth it :)