How Stories Last

atkins-bookshelf-literatureIn a recent seminar, sponsored by The Long Now Foundation that fosters long-term thinking, British author Neil Gaiman spoke eloquently and passionately about the importance of stories and how they endure, inspire, and sustain us. Gaiman explained: “Stories teach us how the world is put together and the rules of living in the world, and they come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and want to help them propagate.”

One of the most profound lessons about the importance of stories came from his 97-year-old cousin, Helen Fagin, a Holocaust survivor. During the Nazi occupation, Fagin taught math, language, grammar, to young girls who lived in a Polish ghetto. Gaiman recounts: “A few years ago, she started telling me this story of how, in the ghetto, they were not allowed books. If you had a book the Nazis could put a gun to your head and pull the trigger — books were forbidden. And she used to teach under the pretense of having a sewing class, a class of about twenty little girls, and they would come in for about an hour a day, and she would teach them math, she’d teach them Polish, she’d teach them grammar. One day, somebody slipped her a Polish translation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. [Fagin] blacked out her window so she could stay up an extra hour [so she could] read a chapter of Gone with the Wind. And when the girls came in the next day, instead of teaching them, she told them what happened in the book. And each night, she’d stay up. And each day, she’d tell them the story.

Gaiman asked Fagin why she would risk death for a story. Fagin answered: “Because for an hour every day, those girls weren’t in the ghetto – they were in the American South; they were having adventures — they got away.” Gaiman adds: “I think four out of those twenty girls survived the war. And [Fagin] told me how, when she was an old woman, she found one of them, who was also an old woman. And they got together and called each other by names from Gone with the Wind.”

Great stories then, as this anecdote proves so powerfully, magically transport us to another world. Gaiman observes: “The magic of escapist fiction is that it can offer you escape from an otherwise intolerable situation, and it can furnish you with armor, knowledge, weapons, and other tools you can take back into your life to make it better.” And sometimes, great stories, like faith, are the only things that can provide a glimmer of hope in the darkest corners of the world.

Read related posts:
The Meaning of the Great Gatsby Ending
Why Read Dickens?
The Power of Literature
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America
Why Study Literature?

For further reading:

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