Stories To Tell

The letter to the editor in the newspaper, Walter Benjamin writes, convinced everyone he was a writer. Today with our advanced technology not only is everyone convinced he has something to say he says it. People e-mail every day. Cell phones are always in use. One has to blog and tweet whatever the subject.

Is this any more than the guy at the bar who says you don't know what happened to me today? Or the woman who says you won't believe what she did? They have a right to tell their stories. We have the right to listen or not. Those who tell their stories, however, do so with the belief that their stories should be heard.

For years stories at bars were not news. News was made by government officials, business leaders, leading scientists, writers of one stripe or another, musicians, filmmakers, artists. We may have views of government, experience in the workplace, cultural preference, but none of this is likely to be heard by the news industry or, if it were, was ignored, dismissed.

A bumper sticker I saw recently reads, "My pit bull is smarter than your honor student."  It makes its point that formal education may not teach you how to live in the world, even if that is its intention. The pit bull learns how to function in a way the honor student may flounder when he steps outside the classroom.

The point the bumper sticker does not make but that is implicit in what it says, is that formal education in America, particularly college and graduate study, is seen to be superior to the education of the worker. In The Republic, Plato argues that the craftsman can do nothing other than what he is trained to do. He should not try to write like a writer, think like a thinker, because his knowledge and intelligence are sufficient in themselves and no more. Historically, those who speak for the worker refer to his spirit, traditional values and embrace of popular virtues in order to keep him in his place.

In my work as a librarian, farmers, postmen and housewives would come into my office with books they had written, stories they had to tell, lives they considered important enough to lose sleep writing them. They had spent their life-savings to self-publish books they believed in so strongly that they had to make them available. (For much of American history the library was the one place that might happen.) Their novels might be as good, if not better, than ones reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, but it was not likely anyone would know of them. If they were on the shelves of a public library, someone might find them.

Ideas are like checks, the poet Ezra Pound writes. How good they are is dependent on how much we have in our account. There is no program for how we build our account or invest it. Henry David Thoreau says we should spend as much time reading a book as the author takes to write it. Blogs and tweets are knee-jerk reactions, but they may, as Ralph Waldo Emerson writes of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, have had, "A long foreground somewhere, for such a start." Poetry is conservative Robert Creeley says. It conserves what is important to itself. We may find it wherever it might be. The plumber's book. That of the waitress. 

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Volume 6, Issue 19, Posted 8:25 AM, 09.22.2010