The Power of Stories

A Christmas CarolIn 1843 Charles Dickens read a report from parliament that detailed the horrors of child labor in the mines and factories of England. Actually, Dickens was already familiar with the abuses outlined in the report since his father had gone to debtor’s prison when Charles was a child, forcing him to get a job to provide money for his family. Nonetheless, he was so moved by what he read that he told one of the commissioners that he intended to write a pamphlet entitled “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” A few days later he wrote the commissioner again telling him that he had changed his mind, and would write a story about the issues instead. “I am not at liberty to explain them any further, just now,” he wrote, “but rest assured that when you know them, and see what I do, and where, and how, you will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force — twenty thousand times the force — I could exert by following out my first idea.”

It took him a mere six weeks to write the story he had in mind, and it certainly did “feel like a Sledge hammer” coming down. In fact its impact was so great that you may be reading it now or watching a movie version of it on TV. That novella, published on December 19, 1843 (almost exactly 172 years ago) is Dickens’ immortal A Christmas Carol. Despite the scoffing of the elite who saw Dickens as a maudlin do-gooder, the 6,000 copy first printing (published at his own expense) sold out quickly, and millions of copies have been bought and read by people around the world since then. It has even softened a few hard hearts including that of Franklin Fairbanks, the owner of Fairbanks Scales, who heard Dickens read A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve of 1867 in Boston. Fairbanks was so moved by the story that he decided to give his employees Christmas Day off, and he gave each employee a free turkey.

Now, imagine that Dickens wrote the pamphlet he originally envisioned rather than A Christmas Carol. Would the pamphlet have had the impact of a sledge hammer on English society? Would we still be reading that pamphlet today? The answer to both questions is “no.” And why did Jesus use parables to teach the people what He wanted them to know instead of simply telling them how to live and how to treat other people? For that matter, would we still be reading Shakespeare if he had incorporated his astounding insights about human behavior into essays? In both cases stories were the best and most appealing way to get and hold the attention of the intended audiences. Nothing else would have worked nearly so well.

There is something compelling and long-lasting about a story.  We humans absorb stories more readily than any other written (or spoken) form of communication. That’s one reason why the novel will always be with us. Our ancestors, sitting by a fire on a dark, cold night, probably loved stories just as much as we do. And the stories don’t have to be original, they can be slight variation on tales we’ve heard before.

A few weeks ago I was helping my granddaughter with her math homework, but I felt that I wasn’t getting through to her. I decided to personalize the math problems so that each one became a very short story. One was about her sharing pizzas with friends and deciding how many slices each person would get. Another time, I told her that I had bought her a book at a 20% discount, but then had to add 9% sales tax. She had to tell me how much I paid. Suddenly, it all began to make sense to her. It’s amazing how even turning math homework into stories changed her perspective and understanding.

Stories have a power over us that we don’t fully understand, but we love them just the same. Think about that as you’re reading a good novel or watching a great old movie. And, if you haven’t read A Christmas Carol lately, take time to read it again. Like all good stories, it never gets old.

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