The end of storytelling


In 1936, the German writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin published an essay, “The Storyteller,” in which he lamented that the art of storytelling was dying out in his time, killed in part by an immense flood of information.

In 1936.

“Every morning brings us the news of the globe,” Benjamin wrote, “and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation.”

It’s hard to imagine what Benjamin would have thought of our time, when every instant makes available to us more news, facts, factoids, data, images, statistics, lies, and explanations than someone in 1936 could have gathered in a month. It’s astounding that I can carry the libraries and news media of the world around in my pocket, and access them whenever I want to. It’s a miraculous thing. But what happens to my ability to stop and reflect on any of it if I’m consuming information like potato chips, stuffing more of it in every moment?

We still tell each other stories. We still crave stories. The kind of storytelling Benjamin is talking about -- in which people gather around an experienced weaver of worlds, someone who crafts a spellbinding tale with his voice and hands and imagination -- is a rare thing, certainly. Do we still experience the kind of telling which isn’t “shot through with explanation”? The kind of story that keeps some of its secrets, that, as Benjamin beautifully and mysteriously describes it, “preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.” 

Stories like this are surely still being told, in books and film and even by word of mouth. But how can we give them our whole attention when they get crowded out a moment later by more stories, more texts and facts and babble? How can a storytelling be a special event when countless stories are available, at our fingertips, whenever we want them? Are we still able, or willing, to let a powerful story live and grow in us slowly, over days, months, years? 

Maybe the problem isn't so much one of information, as Benjamin lamented, but one of too many stories.

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