Long before Tell Me A Story became a popular TV series reimagining fairy tales as modern-day thrillers, long before local romance writer Tamara Lush came out with an erotic series called Tell Me a Story and long before novelist Cassandra King Conroy wrote a memoir called Tell Me A Story about her life with Prince of Tides author Pat Conroy, “Tell me a story” was my bedtime ritual. Every night before I would agree to go to sleep, my grandfather read my sisters and me a story.
When Papa died (I was only 3), my mother stepped in and not only read us stories from our vast collection of children’s books, but also made up ones of her own which involved amazing flights of fancy (“zoom, zoom, zoom on a magic carpet”) and a girl named Mary Ann who could do anything she put her mind to do.
Years later when I was book editor at the St. Petersburg Times, I wrote a column decrying the fact that audiobooks were becoming so popular. Wasn’t it better to read a book than to listen to it? I asked.
Well, the feedback I received from that column made me reconsider my answer to that question. One of the responses came from the daughter of a blind woman who said her mother wanted me to know that she agreed with me that nothing could replace holding a book in your hands, but that listening to books was all that she had left. Another pointed out that literature — especially poetry — was originally orally transmitted. Wasn’t I missing the benefits of hearing a tale?
Yes, I was. I realized I had forgotten the thrill of those bedtime stories — the magic of having a story told to me. I started listening to audiobooks and to my amazement found many of them provided something I couldn’t get just by reading a text.
In David McCullough’s biography Truman, for example, the audiobook included an excerpt from an actual speech by Give ‘Em Hell Harry. You couldn’t get that out of a book. I was hooked. I’ve never abandoned books, but there’s always an audiobook on my reading list.
I’m not alone. The audiobook has continued to be the fastest growing segment in publishing — and thanks to lockdown, interest in them exploded in 2020. Last year sales increased by 16 percent in the U.S., generating over $1.2 billion dollars in revenue. For ages 18 and up, the average number of audiobooks consumed per year went up to 8.1 from 6.8 in 2019.
The pandemic has given us the time and inclination to listen to stories.
In a Washington Post story last August, several authors talked about their willingness to join online book clubs that are discussing one of their books.
“I love to connect with book groups, because it allows me to interact with my readers in a living-room format,” Chris Bohjalian, whose latest book, The Red Lotus, is eerily about a pandemic told the Post. “We talk in a way we never talk at a book signing or speech. It’s far more authentic.”
St. Petersburg native Mary Kay Andrews has also discovered the virtues of meeting her readers online. She had planned a massive book tour to tout her 2020 title Hello Summer which came out in May. But when COVID19 prompted so many cancellations, she launched a Facebook Live channel with fellow writers Patti Callahan Henry, Mary Alice Monroe, Kristy Woodson Harvey and Kristin Harmel.
The group — which they call ‘Friends & Fiction: Five Bestselling Authors. Endless Stories” — meets every Wednesday at 7 pm to talk with each other and guest authors about books and writing. The interviews are now archived on YouTube with more to come in 2021.
Local festivals — Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise Readings, the Florida Storytelling Festival and the Zora Neale Hurston Festival — and local bookstore Tombolo Books — which usually feature in-person programming are offering a number of online author events this month (see sidebar), giving us a unique opportunity to listen to our favorite authors and hear stories in the comfort of, well, our living rooms.
Florida, it appears, has a long history of oral storytelling – a speciality of Zora Neale Hurston, for starters. The Florida Storytelling Festival (which normally is held in Mount Dora) is organized by the Florida Storytelling Association, a group that began in 1984 when Jennifer Bausman and Annette Bruce, two women who loved storytelling, organized the first Florida Storytelling Camp at a rustic Florida campground.
“We are storytellers, story listeners and story lovers,” the association’s website says, summing up our universal love of telling and listening to stories.
“We are people just like you with a story to tell.”