I read stories to students in my classes all the time. It’s how we explore literature together. They have printed copies, and my expectation is they follow along silently as I read the story aloud. How dreadfully archaic of me, you gasp. Hasn’t modern educational pedagogy moved beyond that? Yep, probably. But nobody has told my students that, bless their questing little hearts, and so they sit raptly as we unlock brave new worlds. Anyway, thirty years of teaching has given me a pretty good idea of what works with kids, unlike university professors and politicians who talk learnedly about best classroom practices even though it’s been decades, or maybe never, since they were actually in front of ordinary hormonal adolescents in a classroom. And I want to be clear that I read with all kinds of expression, including accents where appropriate and different voices for different characters. Reading aloud can be deadly if the reader isn’t good at it. (One of the nicest compliments I received was when a student said recently I should narrate an audiobook version of my novel.)
I’ve met very few students, among the thousands who have walked through my classroom door, who didn’t like to go through stories in this manner --- and that's including all the grades I’ve taught, from grade six through grade 12. Yep, even too-cool-for-their-own-good high school students love to be read to. Kids who hate reading love to be read to. Brilliant kids who would read all the livelong day, if you let them, love to be read to. (Although as we read, I can see them pulling away from where the rest of our monolithic group is flowing along at my spoken pace. That’s okay. I know they’re so in the story’s grip that they just can’t wait, and I have nothing but respect for that kind of literary impatience.) And the kids in between, the severely normal? Well, they love to be read to as well. Everyone loves a story.
(Well, yes, okay, I know. Not everyone. There are the Neanderthals out there who do not. But they don’t count, he said dismissively, and anyway, my response to them is Henry Tilney’s from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” In other words, a big, fat, literate raspberry. Yeah, Neanderthal, I’m talkin’ to you. If you can even understand me. Stop draggin’ yer knuckles on the literary ground and walk.)
Anyway... again... why do we love stories?
I think, very simply, it’s because we want to be entertained, enthralled, and diverted... in short, lifted out of lives that frequently seem to have little or none of the magic, adventure or romance that stories relate. (Sometimes we also want to be educated... but that isn’t the primary reason. Most of us don’t relish being hit over the head by a club with life lessons as we read. If we did, we’d just wander over to those self-help and advice-on-living tomes in the bookstore’s mammoth aisle under the “Didactic” sign.)
Note that I’m not saying our lives, as they are, can’t or don’t contain magic, wonder and adventure. I sure hope they can and do. But in stories, especially the fantasy genre, we frequently read about people experiencing things that just don’t usually crop up in everyday lives. And in that vein, I suspect we also love stories because it’s a great deal more fun to read about fighting dragons than it would be to actually battle them. Siegfried Sassoon, famed English poet, put it really well in his First World War poem Dreamers, where he talked about how soldiers don’t dream of heroic deeds or dying gloriously in battle, as they might have in their mundane lives prior to becoming soldiers. No, they dream of very ordinary things: taking the train to the office on a weekday morning and going on holiday outings... precisely the sort of things they despised back when they were doing them.
Or to put it another way, using a source I regularly refer to: it’s great fun to read about Frodo and Sam struggling their way up Mount Doom to destroy the Ring. Ah, the heroism! The noble self-sacrifice! The sense of comradeship! It’s enough to reduce some of us to puddles of weepy joy and treacly sentimentality. However... it would be quite another thing entirely to actually be toiling up the slope of an active volcano, starving and parched, wearing a tiny piece of jewellery hanging from your neck with the weight almost literally of an anvil, your mind filled with the soul-destroying presence of unbelievable evil nearby, breathing poisonous fumes and dodging volcanic vomit, knowing with sick dread that what you’ve signed up for is a one way ticket because you’re not a character in a story and there’s no helpful author who’s going to write a last-minute convenient escape in the form of enormous eagles or whatever...
So... it’s one thing to read it from the safety of our favourite armchair, steaming mug of Earl Grey on the side table, fire roaring comfortably in the grate; quite another to be out in the field of action, taking the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ on the chin while icy rain credibly imitates the Flood. I think most would prefer to be in that armchair... and if you have your own thoughts from that armchair about why we love stories, I’d love to hear from you.
On a final note, there is, of course, a corollary to the question about why we love reading stories: why do writers/storytellers love writing/telling them? I’ll explore that next. It’s particularly germane for me at the moment, because I received my first ever royalty cheque yesterday... which is originally what I was going to make this post about. But in a terrific example of one of the things I adore about writing, this morphed into something quite different. You know, I just love it when a plan doesn’t come together.