Like kids all over the world, my daughters loved me reading them a story every night before they went to sleep.
“Tell me a story.”
My eldest daughter loved James Herriot’s stories about a vet in the Yorkshire Dales. (Ironically, she married a guy who grew up just a few miles down the road from Herriot.) My youngest loved stories about a not very good witch called Pongwiffy. (Fortunately she has not yet dated a warlock …but stay tuned.)
From when we are children to almost our last breath, many of us are addicted to stories; crime fiction, historical fiction, or any kind of fiction, in books, on the television, in movies.
So when did humans first start saying: “Tell me a story?”
And why are stories so crucial to us, not only as individuals, but to the whole human race?
Graphic novels have been around forever. The first one started with someone scrawling some figures on a cave wall, thousands of years ago.
Audio books are as old as humans themselves. The first one was heard around a campfire, while some Neanderthals were roasting a brontosaurus steak, the storyteller dressed in animal skins.
In the millennia since, stories have been variously carved, scratched, printed or inked onto wood or parchment, silk or bark or palm leaf, stone and clay.
These days books – in some cases, the very same stories – are now recorded digitally.
The medium has changed – or rather, it has multiplied – but whether it’s an audio-book or a play or a movie or an eBook or a hardback novel, it’s all just a way to provide the very thing that all human beings crave: tell me a story.
Psychologists now tell us our brains are wired for story.
Originally, stories evolved as a way to teach younger members of a tribe notions of morality, about good and bad. Nothing much has changed. Because every story, intentionally or not, has a purpose – a message.
Depending on the message, stories can instill tolerance or breed cynicism – or even hate.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped end slavery in the US by showing many whites that black people were human beings, just like them. It brought them to vivid life … in a story. Conversely, the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation inflamed racism and helped resurrect the all but defunct Ku Klux Klan.
In the fifties and sixties John Wayne told us one story about the Plains Indians of North America; more recently, Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves took the same subject and told us quite another story with quite a different message about the ‘wild west’.
Some people think stories are just entertainment. They’re not.
From Cinderella to Pretty Woman; Silence of the Lambs to Red Riding Hood; Jack and the Beanstalk to The Hunger Games, even the simplest of stories has a message. They explain the world to us and they shape our view of it.
The Cinderella story, the one that says dreams can come true, can be found in almost every culture, and has existed for thousands of years.
We might scoff at such happy endings and say that’s not how life is; but psychologists have now found that believing the lie moves us to try and make that lie true, at last some of the time.
Because stories matter. They shape us individually and as a society. People who read fiction easily outperform non-fiction readers when testing empathic response. That’s why it’s important to read to kids from quite an early age. A five-year-old, for example, can follow the thoughts of an imaginary character. A three-year-old can’t.
In other words, about the age a kid learns to tie their own shoes they learn to walk a mile in someone else’s.
And empathy is the single most important human quality we need if we are to survive on this planet together. It is the glue that keeps us together.
Crudely put, an empathic person would not – could not – massacre people in a mosque in Christchurch or mow them down in a van on Westminster Bridge.
And in these days of coronavirus, trolling and hate speech, we need stories that talk about the best we can be, and we need them more than ever.
Humans don’t make up stories; our stories make us.
And that is why there are books.