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Telling Stories: an Antidote to Loneliness (and Other Human Conditions)

Holly Takashima
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Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper (Image: Christopher Rose) 

Book Buzz is a blog produced in collaboration with neighborhood librarians from Houston Public Library, Harris County Public Library and the Bellaire Library.

I picked up Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone while waiting to depart on a long, transatlantic flight back home. It was fitting, as airports can be much like cities: insufferably crowded and curiously isolating. The latter quality stems from their liminality. You are either coming or going in an airport, never yet arrived. It can inspire a sense of being adrift in even the most grounded of people.

Laing’s book is a quiet meditation on what it means to be alone. It is a mix of memoir and biography, and weaves between snapshots of her life alone in New York and the lives of artists whose works were a product of (or response to, or simply an accurate rendering of) loneliness. One of the artists in particular, David Wojnarowicz, creates art that reaches into Laing’s private solitary existence and forges a tenuous connection, tethering her back into the wide world by simply showing her that she was not alone in her loneliness. Loneliness, she discovered, was “a populated place.”

“You can show what loneliness looks like, and you can also take up arms against it, making things that serve explicitly as communication devices,” Laing writes. This was a driving force for Wojnarowicz’s art, and it prompted me to think of all the other rather ordinary ways people have taken up arms against loneliness.

These three books are testaments to that fight, capturing ephemeral moments of intentional connection between people by fixing them on the printed page. All are born of real-world spaces driven by storytelling, the most explicit communication device we humans have.

Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton is a collection of photos and stories. Originally conceived purely as a photography project, Stanton set out to catalogue the city’s residents; his plan was to stop 10,000 strangers on the streets of New York and take their pictures. Short quotes that accompanied the photos evolved into longer stories. He now often spends 30 to 45 minutes with the strangers he asks to photograph, and the book is a record of those conversations.

All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown compiles stories told live at Moth gatherings around the world. Started in 1997, The Moth’s premise is simple: each show has a theme, and people tell true stories around that theme to a live audience, without notes or armor.

Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life From the StoryCorps Project is an anthology of interviews selected from thousands recorded since its inception in 2003. StoryCorps’ method is straightforward. Around the country, there are booths both permanent and mobile. You make an appointment. You bring anyone you want (family, friend, acquaintance). You enter the booth, where there is a facilitator, a microphone, and silence waiting to be filled. You have 40 minutes to ask questions, to listen, and to bear witness to another’s life.

These books, consisting of life after life after life, can often feel like beautiful but indecipherable palimpsests. But there are also flashes of clarity, moments where the palimpsest transforms into the most intricate of webs: this life echoing that one, this experience context for another, this cause, this effect, ad infinitum. It makes visible the interdependence of things, the deep connectedness of this world, and the irrevocable knowledge that you are a part of it. This feeling envelops you as a reader and is, if you find you might need it, an antidote to loneliness.

Storytelling may be an antidote to something else as well. In articles that examine loneliness within the context of our modern world, powered by the internet and dominated by screens, it is noted that narcissism is the flipside of loneliness. Stories can help us here, too. Read enough stories, and the denial of the interior lives of others – full of all the shock and suffering, awe and banality of our own – becomes impossible. And if narcissism provides fertile ground for the growth of fear, telling stories is an antidote to that as well.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That is an old truth, fixed into words by Joan Didion during the late ’70s. Perhaps we share our stories with others in order to live more fully, which might be the opposite of loneliness.

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