I first learned about the StoryCorps Project while on the run, driving my children to school, which was my usual time to listen to Morning Edition, the most popular show aired on National Public Radio. Although that was several years ago and I don’t remember the exact interview that I heard that day, I do remember how I felt at the time: moved. So when I saw this title among a list of books to be reviewed, I snapped it up for I expected to be made to feel that way again, and I haven’t been disappointed. All of the interviews in this collection are interesting in some way, and many have given me goosebumps or brought tears to my eyes.
With all the noise of living in a world full of technology, with all the busy-ness that occupies our waking hours, with all the glitz of celebrities, we may forget what is really important in life—our relationships with others and ourselves. Yet David Isay, the award-winning radio producer and founder of the StoryCorps Project, reminds us in the book’s introduction,
“The project is about permanence in an ever more disposable society. It reminds us of what’s really important in the midst of all life’s distractions. It encourages us to connect despite endless temptations to detach and disengage.” Like Isay, I believe in the power of storytelling to help us know ourselves and each other better.
Founded in 2003, the nonprofit StoryCorps Project aims to celebrate and document the lives of ordinary Americans. It runs facilities so that volunteers can record professional quality interviews about their lives then save these interviews on compact discs, one for the participants, and with permission another for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. From its first recording booth in New York City, the project expanded rapidly. Trailers housing recording booths have traveled from state to state, allowing Americans from all locales and walks of life to participate. In fact, Isay and his colleagues have worked to make sure that people outside the mainstream do participate, including prisoners and the homeless.
During the project’s first five years, StoryCorps participants recorded 20,000 interviews, each usually 40 minutes long. Although voice recordings preserve these stories with an immediacy that the written word lacks, the 50 short interview excerpts that make up Listening Is an Act of Love will draw readers in with their conversational tone and easy readability. They are arranged around the topics Home and Family, Work and Dedication, Journeys, History and Struggle, and Fire and Water (stories about September 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina), so that the book as a whole is likely to appeal to a broad base of readers. Even though the excerpts are short, they are satisfying in their own right.
While proceeds from the sale of the book will help fund StoryCorps’continuing efforts, Isay hopes that it will encourage readers to interview others important in their lives, make their own recordings, and preserve these parts of family history, of American history. For this reason, the last section in the book provides tips, a do-it-yourself checklist, and favorite StoryCorps questions.
Readers may also be inspired to visit the Internet site
www.storycorps.net to learn how to interview someone, listen to any of nearly 200 stories (searchable by participant name and subject), subscribe to a podcast, or find out how to bring the StoryCorps to their communities. There are also free, downloadable resources for teachers and discussion group leaders wishing to create their own oral history project. Isay hopes that community leaders, librarians, teachers, and others will help keep the conversation going by spreading the word about this worthwhile endeavor.
At the community college where I teach beginning writing, I recently used the Blanca and Connie Alvarez interview to start the semester. As the students, representing a mixture of races, ethnicities, and ages, listened to this story of a Mexican family’s struggle to get an education after immigrating to the United States, I could see they were listening closely. I hoped that they would take to heart that the Alvarez family found getting an education worthwhile, despite the challenges involved. By the end of the piece, I noticed many of them were subtly nodding their heads. Then I introduced them to their first writing assignment: a personal narrative.