I am privileged to stand here and talk to you because I told a story. It wasn’t even an original or made-up story. I found it in a newspaper and it amazed me. Reading it made the soles of my feet tingle. The story made me happy and it made me feel that being human was a little more wonderful, a little grander, than I’d previously imagined. I wanted to tell the story to others, and so, using pictures as well as words, I made a book.
I’ve since met people who have read my book and they’ve told me that it amazed them and made the soles of their feet tingle, and that it was a story they felt they needed, and needed to show to others. And so here we all are because of a story.
What is it about stories? Why are they so important to us? Why spend so much time and effort in the hearing and reading and telling and writing of them? Of course there’s money in it — but why? Why do people all over the world spend the money they’ve earned driving taxis, selling shoes, building buildings, and plowing fields to hear or see a good story? What do stories give us? Why do we pursue and treasure them, as well as the authors, actors, visual artists, dancers, and musicians who tell them? Music — a lot of people listening to other people make noises — is another kind of storytelling, universally important and valued, though so mysterious that we have even less of an idea of what it does for us. What is it for? Why do we need to jump around when we hear it?
Do all creatures tell stories? Do bears tell stories? I’m sure crows do. I’ve heard them. What are the stories cats tell? Do they tell jokes? Are they about us? What kinds of jokes do dogs tell? I believe dog jokes are very like the one-word jokes little children tell, for instance “Boom!” or “Splash!” Or like slightly older children who tell jokes such as “Underwear!” and “Naked!” and “Fart!”
Doesn’t everything tell stories? I’ve recently spent some days and nights listening to the ocean telling and retelling the tales it has to tell, and I never tired of listening to it sing and sigh, thump and whisper and roar; stories from unimaginable depths, stories of billions of fluttering jellyfish and slowly plummeting whales and flashing schools of bluefish.
And of course there are the stories the wind tells the leaves and the tales the leaves rattle in response, and the stories told by the rain that I heard as a child and hear still.
Food is another kind of story. Each thing we eat tells us a story. A carrot tells us about growing down into the dark earth, and becoming sweet and crisp. I can’t speak for others, but garlic tells me Grimms’ fairy tales. Onions and potatoes tell me about my father’s boyhood in WWI Poland. Big Macs tell me about America. A chef creating a complex and thoughtful dinner is making a kind of opera. The tender young salad, the heroic baked ham, and its Sancho Panza sidekick, the mashed potatoes. The happy ending a trio: raspberry peach pie with vanilla ice cream.
We go through our days telling stories to each other and ourselves; we truly live in a sea of stories, which is the title of a Salman Rushdie book I’ve never read. So many stories, so little time!
Do these stories connect us in a kind of web? Do your stories become part of me and mine become part of you? Are we bound together by Humpty Dumpty and four-and-twenty blackbirds and Superman and James Joyce and Lemony Snicket and Walt Disney and Proust and People magazine? We’ve seen Chinese movies at the cineplex, and in Beijing and Katmandu they’re watching Harry Potter, Finding Nemo, and the governor of California.
I believe that these stories feed us, nourish us, become part of us the way food does. They inform us the way air or helium informs a balloon.
It seems clear to me that everything in the world needs to know about every other thing in the world. My theory is that the driving force in the universe is curiosity — nosiness! It’s not a scientific theory; it’s the kind of theory you come up with if you write and illustrate books for children. But look at a pond, and the way each movement — the breeze wrinkling the surface, the water bug skating on it, the crayfish wriggling into the mud — is transmitted to every part of the pond and to everything else in it. The world has a need to know itself, and we are agents of that knowing. We first looked up at the stars and saw stories of ourselves and the gods and heroes. Now we begin to see the stars themselves, and they tell us stories we’ve never heard before about how everything began: the stars, the planets, space, and, maybe someday, the origin of stories.
All day I hear stories from my radio, stories from everywhere brought to me through the air like ripples in the pond: some of them are fiction, poetry, music — all of which Ezra Pound called “news that stays news.” Some of them are news of what’s happening today — we live in perilous times, but when haven’t we? When someone asked John Cage, who was a kind of Zen Buddhist, “Don’t you think there’s too much suffering in the world?” he replied, “I think there’s just the right amount.” I disagree. Some suffering is essential, but a lot of it is just plain unnecessary and should be abolished. The news stories tell me we are extremely dangerous creatures, and stories, too, can be dangerous if they are used to mislead or manipulate, which is called lying.
I think all stories are about the mystery of being human, and out of all the stories that come to us we pick and choose and decide which are the most tasty, the most interesting, the most nourishing; which ones are fiction and poetry, and which ones tell of actual events, and which ones are lies. And we come up with . . . questions. Questions about what we believe.
I used to believe beliefs were things you believed because they were self-evident, like “all men are created equal.” But I’ve learned that beliefs can be deceiving, and I have to test and question them because what we believe is crucial. Just as stories can change the world, and have, and do, so do the beliefs that precede them, and come out of them.
Do beliefs arise from the truth or does the truth arise from beliefs? I’ve always believed that we humans are slowly, tortuously crawling, with frequent quantum hops and slips backward, toward evolving into creatures who will no longer have to kill each other; that eventually everyone will have to acknowledge how stupid it is and stop. But recently I’ve been forced to admit, after careful readings of a lot of stories, that it seems it’s not true; that we will just go on doing what we’ve always done. Even so, I’ve chosen to believe otherwise, that we can evolve, because of the chance that by believing it and acting out of that belief, we can make it the truth. And I also like to believe that stories, good stories with pictures, can be part of getting us there.
Then everyone can get together for dinner and tell stories. May you all have good dinners: may you receive good news from your soup, and may your salad be as fresh, crisp, and surprising as a good poem.
Thank you for honoring my book.