Posted by: Nancy | January 24, 2010

The Power of Stories

I fancy myself a storyteller. I love stories, and I’m privileged to indulge myself by telling stories as a way of earning a living and helping others.

So I was delighted and surprised,to hear two of the great exemplars of the humanities make an impassioned case for the importance of telling stories.

It was a conversation held at the Kansas City Public Library January 21, 2010, featuring James H. Billington, Librarian of the Library of Congress, and his brother, David Billington, engineering professor at Princeton University. The dialog was facilitated by Crosby Kemper III, director of the KC Public Library.

The brothers, born on the same day two years apart, told of their upbringing in Pennsylvania, surrounded by books, deeply affected by their father who held long discourses with them, nurturing their curiosity. It obviously worked. He instilled a love of reading and scholarship in them, and while they pursued different career directions, there’s a common foundation in their approach and worldview.

Books — and the stories they contained — shaped both of them. David tells how, as an 18-year-old in the Navy, he was reading Jane Austen. “I experienced so many words I didn’t know,” he recalled, “words like ‘solicitude‘ and ‘felicity.’ ” He luxuriated in the sounds of the words, looked them up and absorbed their meaning. James recalled reading War and Peace, becoming hooked on Russian literature because he saw “something mysterious” in people, in how we repeat lessons of history. He found lessons in the human elements in stories and in how cultural expressions can be a predictor of events.

“You can learn more from yesterday’s novel than from today’s newspaper,” he said, with a bit of wistfulness. Later, he criticized what he saw as a decline of language, a profound problem in the lack of structure he sees in popular media; and described books as critical to our democracy. More on that later.

David was drawn to engineering, but James pulled him also to history and art. The two continued their tradition of discourse about what each observed, and clearly they learned from each other. David learned that science was important to engineering, but not the most important part — engineering is an art form, a spark of human creativity.

As proof, he was prepared with slides: the 1874 Eads Bridge in St. Louis, the first bridge named for its engineer; the Salginatobel Bridge (his personal favorite); the Brooklyn Bridge; the Boston Bridge, now an icon of the city. The great engineers were artists first, and the great innovations were accomplished by individuals with a strong sense of imagination and ideas.

James told how he was influenced by Thomas Jefferson’s approach to organizing his famous library at Monticello, the seeds of what became the Library of Congress. It was simple, just three categories: Memory, Reason and Imagination.

“It was a way of pulling things together, instead of pulling them apart,” he said. What’s most important is the human element — the story of how people lived, what they thought, how they acted, what motivated them. As Librarian at the Library of Congress, his charge is the story of America, a story told by human documents.

Democracy and books are intertwined in his telling of the story. Our system of government was the only one formed in the age of print and with the values of that age — the tolerance, freedom, creativity. He reminds us that the root of liberty is the Latin libre meaning book.

“If Democracy is to survive and prosper, we must keep the values of the book culture, while embracing innovation, science, society and imagination. We must understand our story,” if we are to be able to understand others’ stories.

Civilization needs builders, he said in a nod to his brother. We need to tell stories of builders to understand how to do more. David offered a supporting thought to the power of pulling together: What if we could allow a single person to design an overpass? Instead of a specialist for the abutment, the grading, the design, the trusses, etc. And what if we put up a plaque with his name on it? He would become responsible for it. Ah, the power of the concept of individual responsibility — a foundation of our Democracy.

The power, and our responsibility, is to bring together without taking apart, to add without subtracting, he said again. How do we know? It’s in the story.

“Stories prevail over theories,” he said. “Stories unite people; theories divide them.”

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