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Book Report: The Story is True

I picked up The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories because of the title. I couldn’t judge it by its cover, because the dust cover had been removed, as is our library’s custom. In fact, I had to open it up to find out if it was fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry. The subtitle wasn’t even visible without opening the up. Once I did open it up, I was bound to give it a shot, though, right?

Anyway, the book is a bit of a shambles. Bruce Jackson (who seems to have had a strange career, starting off as a folklorist and documentarist of prisoners, then heading up the Newport Folk Festival and working on folk music publishing, teaching and writing and making films and having photography exhibits) has some interesting things to say about stories and storytelling, but refuses to marshal those things into any reasonable framework. If he wants to spend a few pages talking about Damon Runyon or OJ Simpson or the Iliad, who’s going to stop him?

In a way, that’s the point. When he says that the story is true, what he’s talking about is not whether any particular story is factual, but the thing that is always true when somebody tells you a story: the person is telling you that story. That story—the person telling you the story story—is true, although by the time you tell anyone about it, the true part is not even that somebody told you that story, just that you are telling a story about being told that story.

Which would just be a silly iterative game, assigning truth values to statements, except that stories do things, do things whether they are factual or not. So when Mr. Jackson seems to have gotten off track, telling some story of his own rather than keeping to the point, to my eyes that is the point, that there is no such thing as telling a story rather than keeping to the point, because the storytelling is doing the work that keeping to the point wouldn’t do.

In Hartford, there was a recent hit-and-run which has become a big national story. I haven’t been following it much, but the story we are telling ourselves seems to be like the Kitty Genovese story, that nobody helped the person in danger. Of course, the Kitty Genovese case is mostly false as far as factual accuracy goes, but again, what is true is that we tell ourselves that story over and over. Similarly, this story has some incredibly troubling parts, but it’s clearly not the case that everybody ignored the guy in the road. Somebody called the police immediately (four different people, actually), and the police arrived within a minute. Nobody went to his side, which is regrettable, but understandable, particularly if somebody was hollering that the police were on their way.

No, the troubling part of the story, to me, is the drivers. There were two: the first pulls out into the oncoming traffic lane and swerves to the left of the pedestrian in the middle of the road in what seems to me to be a deliberate attempt to shake off the following car. That car, the second one, is the one that cripples the old man.

To me, as a driver and pedestrian in Greater Hartford, this is largely a story about crazy drivers and dangerous streets. I have frequently sees dangerous driving, including on that street (although further West by a few blocks). I see people pulling out into the oncoming traffic lane to gain a little time, a few car lengths or one cycle at an intersection. Because the main arteries are congested (and often under construction), people drive on smaller residential streets, but at 40 or 50 miles per hour. People run red lights, they turn right on red despite signs forbidding it, and they drive like maniacs. Both in Hartford and West Hartford, my experience is that drivers aren’t worried about being stopped by the police for reckless driving. Most people, of course, drive (fairly) safely, because they aren’t fuckheads. But the number of fuckheads is not miniscule, in any city. Knowing they aren’t going to get a ticket or have their license taken away plays a part in that. Particularly, of course, for teenagers living at home, and for college students as well to some extent.

So for me, it would be a story about the drivers. For other people, clearly, it’s about the response of the people on the street. That one is the one that has caught on and will be remembered, and that’s what’s interesting. It isn’t about whether the story is accurate, it’s whether it is useful to the listener and the teller. Mr. Jackson talks about the story of Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, going into detail about what actually happened (he has the recording off the soundboard). For me, I’m pretty sure the first time I heard the story, it was about how people think that Bob Dylan was booed off the stage for going electric, but that it didn’t actually happen. And it didn’t, of course. But first there was a story about it happening, and then a story about it not happening. First there was a story about 38 witnesses watching Kitty Genovese attacked, and then there was a story about how that story got made up, and why we believed it.

I could go on. Boy, could I.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


"Starting off as a folklorist," I think, would lend an air of strangeness to any career. And I don't just say that because my father, who started off as a folklorist, had a strange career, but as a simple expression of fact.

Anyway, opinion.

Okay, okay. Truthiness.


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