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Story Archaeology

March 21, 2011

I read this story on Wired today about a Dad who found tape recordings of his own father reading bedtime stories.

In it, and in an article linked within that article, the author mourns the fact that physical media, like cassettes, CDs, and books are on the wane. Personally, I find myself torn on the issue. On one hand,  I love physical books. My individual history with stories is too bound up in actual paper-and-ink for me to get away from, as much as I generally embrace new information technology. In reading John McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, the book itself was as much a part of the experience as the words. It is printed on paper so thin you’re afraid that every page turn will be accompanied by a tearing noise. The story itself has the same feeling – you know, from the very beginning, that the everyday experiences it describes are stretched taut, ready to be torn by something truly terrible.  It’s a fragile and beautiful story, and the physical experience of fragile pages just drove it home for me.  Intentional? I don’t know, but that doesn’t really matter. Any story is tied intrinsically with the medium, and Words on a Page are subtly different from Words on a Screen in the same way that a story being read aloud is different from one you read to yourself.

And on the other, I recently rediscovered The Storyteller series, thanks to the wonders of digital media. The physical collection itself is hard to come by, either prohibitively expensive, or, more often, incomplete.  But I was able to obtain a copy in mp3 format, and it has been an absolute joy to re-experience them. I have found myself mouthing the words to poems I couldn’t name two weeks ago, instantly reminded by the musical cues and the rhythym of the reading what line should come next. I’ve listened to stories and felt the very same as I did hearing them as a child, the gut reaction to the words coming back to me as easily as the memory of the words themselves.

This is what digital media gives us – a place to put art and ideas that will last far beyond any physical artefact holding the same thing. Once we have scanned or uploaded a story, it will be there to be found. I count myself terribly lucky that I grew up in just the right era that I could find these stories again. The tapes I once had are old and worn out – in fact, they were already worn when I listened to them, and of the 40 something tapes I inherited, only half survived my constant use of them to be passed on to my sister, and pretty much none of them survived long enough to be enjoyed by my youngest sister by the time she was of an age to do so. (The book, by contrast, is a far more durable piece of technology than the cassette)

But if I come across a complete collection of the tapes and books when I have money enough to buy them? In a heartbeat. There is still more of the childhood experience that I’m missing. As I listen to the mp3s, the chimes remind me that there are pages I ought to be turning, and artwork that remains only half-remembered even as the words come back to me. There is the scramble to turn over the tape and hear the next story.  There is a lot of good in digital media, but we’ll never replace the physical. That said, physical vs. digital is one of those false dichotomies. Embracing digital media does not necessitate rejecting the physical. Loving the contents of your bookshelves or your CD collection doesn’t mean that backing them up in digital form isn’t a good idea. I look forward to being able to buy a book and receive both a digital and physical copy at once. One for the experience, and one that will last forever, so that at least some part of that experience can always be relived.

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