Audiobooks and the oral story telling tradition

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When I was about ten, a story teller came to our school. He was, in my memory at least, everything you’d expect – big hair, baggy shirt, new age intensity. He had a bowl that rang out with a clear, captivating note when he ran a stick around it. I was entranced.

He came to mind today as I thought some more about audiobooks and stories as something we listen to. At first, audiobooks might seem like the modern continuation of the oral story telling tradition, with a lone performer drawing us into a story that we listen to, but in a lot of ways I don’t think they are.

One reason is that the old story telling tradition was about keeping the stories alive. The stories were handed down from one teller to the next, and those brains became the repositories in which the stories were preserved for future generations. These days we have books for that, and the internet. Audiobooks are just one more way to preserve the story, and not one most people use.

Then there’s the shared experience. A comment from Sheila yesterday highlighted the fact that a lot of audiobook listening is done on your own. But old-school story telling was a shared moment around campfire or hearth, a whole audience waiting with baited breath to see what happens next. These days, we’re more likely to get that shared experience, that anticipatory tension, from watching the latest episode of a hotly anticipated TV show, then turning to friends, family or the internet to share our excitement. Some friends and I will be glued to my TV at eight tonight for the start of Agents of SHIELD, huddled round the neon campfire.

And then there’s the element of live performance, of the story teller getting caught up in the emotions with their audience, of a performance that’s all the better for its uniqueness, for its small imperfections and sense of connection. Audiobooks, being a recorded form, don’t have that. It lives on for a few in live story telling, but most of us are more likely to get it from a music gig or perhaps going to the theatre.

These changes aren’t a bad thing. They mean that we still get what we used to get from live story telling, in a whole host of different ways. And live story telling isn’t entirely dead – for one of my friends, it’s a favourite hobby. That campfire experience lives on, fractured and varied, but perhaps even stronger for it.

As always, I’m interested to see your comments. Have I missed some key feature of story telling? Have you been to a particularly cool or interesting story telling performance? Let the world know below.