Commentary by Joe McWilliams
So……….have you read any good books lately? I have, and I might get around to mentioning one or two before the end of this article. You never know.
People in general, I find, don’t talk much about what they read. Far more likely is to hear (or read) about movies or TV shows. Books? Well, if you press someone, they may admit to a minor reading habit.
It is a fine thing to be acquainted with some of the great stories and great storytellers. But is it essential?
Maybe not. Maybe people are getting the same or similar value by other means. Movies are stories. Radio has stories and the relatively new ‘podcast’ expands on that and improves on it, if what I hear about it is true.
Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian author, was talking about this topic on the radio not long ago. It might even have been a podcast, but I heard it on CBC Radio, where (say what you will) you can hear stuff that just doesn’t exist on commercial radio.
Anyway, Gladwell’s (he’s the author of ‘Outliers’ and ‘The Tipping Point’) latest foray is into audio broadcasts. The great thing about audio, he said to interviewer Anna Maria Tremonti, is how stimulating it can be to the imagination, or something to that effect. This does not happen with video. Video is passive, requiring no imagination at all.
Of course watching moving pictures is hugely compelling. We all know it and love it and have since earliest childhood. There’s no getting away from that – although I know some brave (or maybe just weird) people who have thrown out their TV and manage to get by without it. Not very many, though. And though I am hugely skeptical of most of what is on television, I am not throwing out my TV.
But here’s something that happens often enough. I’ll have the radio on while driving and an excellent program such as CBC’s ‘Ideas’ comes on and it will set the old imagination going like crazy. Ideas crowd in and connections are made and the next thing you know I’m writing a column like this one. (Hopefully even a better one!).
Of course there are ancient cultural echoes here. Our ancestors sat around campfires for millennia listening to wise men and women or returned adventurers tell stories. The love for stories that illustrate and illuminate the world is deeply embedded in our cultural DNA. The whole of our formal education is a series of stories that explain the universe, or attempt to. The raging political conflicts amount to different narratives (stories) about what the world is, how it works and what should be done to fix it. The classical tension in any society is between those who accept the old stories (conservatives) and those who reject them in favour of new stories (your basic ‘progressive’).
So for x number of millennia, all we had was the storyteller. Then along came books. Blame the Egyptians, if you like, who figured out how to make paper and developed an alphabet of sorts. The Greeks and Romans came along and said, ‘Hey, this looks like a good idea!’ and here we are.
Or here we were. Reading takes some patience. Instant gratification it isn’t. It’s the classical symphony music of storytelling. It takes more effort, but you get more out of it than you do from the three-minute pop song. But because it takes effort it goes out of fashion.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.