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Monday, July 20, 2009

Telling Our Stories

From NBC's Matthew Samuels:
On Friday night, legendary CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite died after a long illness at the age of 92. In a world without the Internet and a 24-hour news cycle, Americans trusted Cronkite to provide the news every evening. A 1972 poll showed that Mr. Cronkite was more trusted than the president, the vice president, members of Congress, and other prominent journalists.
From Newsweek's Malcolm Jones:
(Frank) McCourt's voice took on a hard edge when he began to address the crowd a few minutes later. "I can do no more than tell the truth," he began. "People who think I have insulted Ireland or Limerick or my family have not read the book!" An ovation drowned out whatever he said next.
In the last few days, the world lost two great storytellers. Great because they captured our imagination, earned our trust, told our stories the way we needed them to be told.

Walter Cronkite needs no introduction. The veteran newsman spent so much time in American homes that he seemed more like your favorite uncle or a particularly wise teacher. Cronkite passed away at age 92 on July 17, 2009, after almost a century of life, and almost 50 years of clear-eyed reporting and sensible, compassionate commentary.

Frank McCourt may be less familiar, but not for lack of trying. After surviving a cruel and miserable childhood, the self-made man rose from hotel porter to well-respected school teacher to best-selling memoirist, turning painful memories of desperate poverty in County Limerick into the kind of fame most school teachers do not see. (McCourt's three books of memoirs have sold more than 10 million copies.) I remember gobbling up my copy of Angela's Ashes, after it was recommended by a friend. In its pages I learned not only what it was like to be Irish at a certain time in history, but what it means to be hungry, to be addicted, to be flawed, to be human.

Does great storytelling matter anymore? I think it does. If you've ever suffered through an afternoon of CNN in which the same story is told and retold, word for word, image for image, every 15 minutes or so, you probably feel the same. Internet news is often repetitive and numbing. I read the news online every morning and evening and I'm dismayed when "stories" appear to be copied-and-pasted from earlier versions, or when news reporting reads more like blogging - heavy on opinion and innuendo, light on facts. And how about the disgraceful number of recent memoirists who have grudgingly admitted that their books belong firmly on the Fiction shelf? Yes, writing fiction is also "storytelling," but manipulating your readers with a false promise is a rotten way to build an audience.

Walter Cronkite gave us the news without flashy graphics and theme songs. He had the courage to report on stories that might be unpopular (the Vietnam War), the wide-eyed curiosity to represent all of America as men walked on the Moon, and somehow managed to be completely engaged by his work while also properly detached from it - does that make sense? Frank McCourt might have waited too long to write his story, making a few factual errors along the way, according to his detractors. But in the end he left us with a moving chronicle of how strong and resilient a human spirit can be, how laughter can be squeezed out of some of life's most bitter moments, and how every person's story is precious, yearning to be told.

Books in our Library featuring Walter Cronkite
Books by Frank McCourt

1 comment:

  1. Great blog Karen! I believe that great storytelling still matters to people. Just take a look at the hundreds of thousands (maybe even millions) of personal blogs that have sprung up over the past several years. The technology became available and suddenly it seems everyone is either sharing personal stories and histories to share, or logging in regularly to follow the real-life stories and opinions of their favorite bloggers.

    If 100 years from now, someone were to go back a cull through the millions of blog posts that have been written this year alone, what a snapshot of our society at this moment in time it would be!


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