Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tell a Story

If you want to change the world, you'd better be able to tell a pretty good story.

For the majority of the human race, ideas just aren't meaningful until they are contained in a memorable story. This is the essential function of all art great and small, good and bad: it conveys ideas beyond the art itself.

Literature, music, lyrics, painting, sculpture, theater, and photography are the technical means for capturing and propagating ideas. As such, they are extensions of language, the most successful art of all.

The idea in question might be that life is meaningless; or that life is full of meaning. The idea might be that individuals matter; or that individuals don't. The idea might be anything or its polar opposite. But the vehicle that transmits that idea, the method that makes that idea popular, is the art that contains it.

Great stories are repeated over and over. They influence human thought and behavior for long periods of time. Jesus Christ didn't deliver learned theological lectures. He told stories that weren't even written down for nearly a hundred years, and we still tell those stories today. In 1852, Harriett Beecher Stowe published the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.  The book so galvanized popular feeling against slavery that Abraham Lincoln called her "the little lady who started this great war." In 1906, the socialist Upton Sinclair declared he was going to write "the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the labor movement." The result was The Jungle, a novel still read and discussed despite its many flaws.

If you want to give an idea life, give it a story.

Consider the perennial popularity of Atlas Shrugged, a 52 year-old, 1,000 page novel. The ideas contained therein can be found in many other places -- lofty debates in academic tomes and impenetrable journals -- but nowhere else have those ideas found such longevity and resonance in the popular imagination. And now, more than ever.

The Economist reports, "According to data from TitleZ, a firm that tracks bestseller rankings on Amazon, an online retailer, the book’s 30-day average Amazon rank was 127 on February 21st, well above its average over the past two years of 542. On January 13th the book’s ranking was 33, briefly besting President Barack Obama’s popular tome, The Audacity of Hope."

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