Why do stories matter? A college professor asked our class this once. Why do stories matter? Why do we need them? Why do we keep writing, reading and watching stories, sometimes the same story over and over again? These questions have lingered with me for some time now.
My basic reaction was to think stories allow us to escape from reality, for a brief moment at least. But that’s not nearly adequate enough. Stories also help us explain the inexpiable. Greek myths helped explain natural events during a time when science couldn’t. Children are often read bedtime stories because that’s the only way they can fall asleep. I still make up stories as I try to fall asleep, and it helps. There is something comforting in a story.
But the importance of stories goes deeper than that. What I settled on back in that poorly lit, dingy college classroom, and what I still believe today, is that we need stories because we learn from them. This isn’t a complete answer, but it’s a start. Starting from an evolutionary standpoint, storytelling is even an advantage in some ways. An early human goes out in the forest, eats a poisonous berry, gets sick, returns to the tribe and tells them what happened. Now no one eats those berries. They have learned by listening to a story, a very basic story, but a story nonetheless.
But what about imaginary stories? We learn from fiction and in a way it helps us form our personal realities. I recently read Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and I found I was going through many of the same problems and grappling with the same big picture questions as the protagonist, Augie March. Moreover, many of Augie’s traits and ideals which he so staunchly defended were attributes I see in myself, both good and bad. Reading Bellow’s story helped me understand myself better and get closer to figuring “it” out, whatever “it” is.
While I was reading Augie March, a friend of mine was having a bad day. I went over to her apartment and brought over some wine, beer and champagne – these nights tend go this way – we talked about why she was in such a poor mood. It wasn’t any single problem, but just a bunch of small problems that usually don’t bother her too bad but for some reason on this day her mind was like a sink full of dirty dishes that had piled up and needed to be cleaned. So we did. Then the very next day, I read this passage in Augie March: “You can get along twenty-nine days with your trouble, but there’s always that thirtieth day when goddammit you can’t…” (page 83). It was too fitting. I texted her that sentence; she laughed because she understood all too well, and everything was good. ..Stories help us.
But why do we go back to the same stories? When I was in high school, my father told me to reread Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn every five years. I thought it was silly, because the story isn’t going to change, so why read it again? But I did it anyway, and I came to realize though the story did not change, I certainly had. And that’s why it’s important to go back to the same story, because we come back at it with a different perspective. We’ve met new people and gone through experiences that will affect how we approach and understand the story.
My five years was up last spring, which just so happened to be the same time I moved from my small hometown in New Hampshire to Chicago, embarking on my own adventure. And it was great to have Huck along with me. I didn’t have an escaped slave Jim with me, but I did have my old friend Tim making the move with me. And we didn’t have a raft to float down the Mississippi River, but we did have a Hyundai Sonata to drive across Interstate 90. Mark Twain and his story helped me make a massive change in my life. And five years from now it will help me again. There’s no way of knowing how it’ll help, but that’s the beauty of it.
My professor would probably strangle me for not remembering his lesson when he asked us why stories matter. But then, now I realize the point of his lesson. We may not know why stories matter, but we know they do and that’s ok. Just like we may not know why our lives matter, but they do. They have to, and stories help us realize that. So really, we may never find the answers to our questions about stories, and more importantly about life, but stories help us get a little closer, and that’s all we need.
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. Copyright © Saul Bellow 1953. The edition from which I quoted was published by Viking Penguin in 2003.