I sat cross-legged on the hard floor of the library, a chill running down my spine. It was nearly Halloween and the usually cheerful librarian had decided to give my eighth grade class a scare by reading us “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. In case you don’t remember, in this gruesome story, a man is haunted by an older man’s pale blue eye and sets out to kill him. Every night the man peers in at the older man sleeping until one night he literally scares him to death and proceeds to dismember him and bury him under the floorboards of the room. Unfortunately, the old man’s heart keeps beating even under the floor. The police arrive at the scene, called by concerned neighbors who heard a scream, and the murderer at first remains calm because there is no evidence of the deed. (He has done the dismemberment in the bath tub.) But the sound of the beating heart overwhelms him with guilt and he admits that he has killed the old man.
I can still remember studying the floor of the library as I listened to this story. Was it really possible to bury someone under a floor and not leave a trace of evidence? Would a heart really keep beating? Could there be someone under this floor right now? I wanted to get out of the library fast and onto the sunny safety of the playground. I never again entered the library with a completely neutral mind.
If you are like me, you can probably remember times as a child when a particular story made an impact. Did you cry when Charlotte in “Charlotte’s Web” died? Were you sad and incredulous at the brutality of humanity after reading Anne Frank’s diary? Were you jealous but captivated, like I was, by the adventures of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys? As humans, we seem to be drawn to stories from childhood on. In her most recent book, researcher and storyteller Brene Brown says we are “wired for story.” She cites the work of neuroeconomist Paul Zack who says that “hearing a narrative with a beginning, middle, end causes our brains to release cortisol an oxitocina. These chemicals trigger the uniquely human abilities to connect, empathize and make meaning.”
It seems that now, more than ever, our lives are filled with stories. I find it interesting that my son will often ask a friend, “Have you seen my story?” He’s talking about his latest post on SnapChat, the app that teenagers favor over Facebook. Similarly, sites like Humans of New York let us read brief accounts about the lives of everyday people and their remarkable stories.
In the last few years I’ve become a fan of audio books. Thanks to technology that allows me to download books onto my phone, I can easily listen to books while I’m driving, walking my dog or waiting for an appointment. There is something powerful about listening to stories that makes the experience different from reading or watching them. A particular actor can only use his or her voice to convey the drama of the story. In some cases, an actor nails it. Sissy Spacek does a great job reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for example. Her soothing Southern accent works well in capturing the voices of Scout, Jem and Atticus. Likewise, the actress who read my version of “Wuthering Heights” (Patricia Routledge) perfectly captured the Yorkshire accents of Heathcliff, Cathy and the others in Emily Bronte’s classic. She was so good, in fact, that I could not understand her rendition of the thick brogue of one of the servants in the novel. I didn’t mind that though; I felt it was a realístic potrayal. On the other hand, Toni Morrison does an almost too good job of reading her novel “Beloved.” The story itself is already heavy, focusing on an escaped slave and her new life trying to escape the ghosts and violence of her past. But Morrison reads with such a breathy, slow and downcast tone that the story became utterly depressing. I had read the whole thing in college and liked it, even found it transformative, but I only made it about halfway through the audio version before deciding to find something more uplifting.
Of course, great literature, and all stories, aren’t just great entertainment or the source of emotional connection. Sometimes they have the power to change. About a year ago I listened to a book by a Catholic priest named Greg Boyle called “Tattoos on the Heart.” In this book Boyle recounts his decades spent working in innercity Los Angeles with hardened gang members. Boyle is a great storyteller and he tells story after story of the lives of inviduals he helped navigate away from the world of drugs and crime into a productive life working for his organization, Homeboy Industries. He treats each person with respect, love and care and they begin to believe in themselves with his friendship. Boyle doesn’t shy away from reality, however, He recounts how several gangmembers couldn’t escape the life they had once led and even though they had left their gang, they were shot and killed for their one-time association. There is no completely happy ending or simple solution to this book. Still, the book made a deep impression. I was amazed with Greg Boyle’s connection with his work. He perfectly fit his calling, much like Atticus Finch fit his as a lawyer and father. His compassion, perservance and creative solutions with people were extraordinary. It made me think about my own calling in life and what gives me joy. I realized, for one thing, the value of doing creative work, such as writing, and sharing ideas with others. Sometimes creative work seems superfluous (like creating art or writing a blog), but this book taught me it may be necessary.
I’m pondering what I’ll listen to next. A classic or a new book? Non-fiction or fiction? With Halloween around the corner, maybe it’s time to return to Poe.