Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project

In Listening Is an Act of Love, acclaimed radio producer Dave Isay admits that the book in your hands really wasn’t written for you. Listening consists of 49 excerpts from the 10,000 interviews people have recorded — either in one of New York City’s two permanent booths (at Grand Central Station and at Ground Zero) or in one of the three mobile booths touring the country — since the project’s launch four years ago.

StoryCorps functions very simply. Participants make an appointment to visit a booth; they bring a family member or friend and, with a facilitator present, interview that person for 40 minutes. Two CD recordings of the interview are made: the participants keep one, and the other becomes part of an archive at the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center in Washington, DC. (Selections are also broadcast on National Public Radio.)

But as Isay writes, his ambitious oral history project wasn’t developed “for the benefit of an audience”; rather, it was “principally focused on enhancing the lives of the participants.”

StoryCorps’ success on that level seeps from the pages of the collection, both in the delight interviewees obviously take in reliving good times and in the catharsis many experience describing painful episodes. Reading the book is like eavesdropping on moments of rare connection between people, and the sensation can be exhilarating.

One of the most striking things about the book is how frequently one person says to another some version of “I was never able to say this to you before” or “I never knew you felt that way.” Clearly, there’s something about being in that booth that emboldens people to express thoughts that might otherwise have remained unarticulated. The process also seems to lend a renewed gravity to accounts that have already been shared. A grandson tells his grandfather, “I’d heard these stories before, but in this setting it was very special.”

It’s perhaps to be expected that some of the most moving selections have to do with extraordinary experiences. Hearing an 87-year-old World War II veteran tell his son-in-law that he’s haunted by the face of a young German he killed in battle — “To this day I wake up many nights crying over this kid…. And I don’t know how to get him off my mind” — offers an intimate and unnerving snapshot of war. But even in less dramatic tales, as Isay says, there is “eloquence, power, grace, and poetry in the words of everyday people.” A Pittsburgh steelworker being interviewed by a friend says, “Steelmaking is…unimaginable beauty. When you’re charging a furnace, you get all these sparkles off of the iron, and so you just see thousands and thousands of sparkles.” When Studs Terkel, the nonagenarian granddaddy of oral history, spoke at StoryCorps’ ribbon cutting in 2003, he declared, “In this booth the noncelebrated will speak of their lives…. And suddenly they will realize that they are the ones who have built this country.” The steelworker’s proud description of his craft beautifully fulfills Terkel’s promise.

I was occasionally startled by a participant’s response to a question, and given that so much of today’s popular culture follows a predictable narrative arc, I appreciated the reminder that people can surprise you. One young man who tracked down his birth mother while in college concludes his session by asking her, in reference to his adoption, “Knowing what you know now, would you do it again?” She’s just detailed the very legitimate reasons for her decision, so I was slightly taken aback by her reply: “I wouldn’t do it again. The separation and the loss is just way too hard.” An inmate who recorded an interview in the Oregon State Penitentiary refutes that old saw about how all prisoners say they’re there by mistake; he remarks of his sentence for robbery, “I’m guilty of the charges I’m here for. I can’t blame nobody but the person I look at in the mirror every day.” An elderly man who cared for his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife for years before her death tells his grandson, “I found it absolutely painless taking care of her…. I find this period to be much more unsatisfactory than all of those years of caring for her.”

The obvious question with a collection based on recorded interviews is whether it’s a drawback that readers can’t hear the speakers’ voices. There were several instances reading the book that I went to the StoryCorps web site and searched for participants because I so wanted to hear the inflections and cadences as particular stories were being told. Parenthetical editorial additions like “crying” and “weeping” might cue readers’ emotional responses, but seeing those words is not the same as actually hearing a voice begin to crack.

Isay’s voice is rarely present in his radio documentaries, and I wish he’d shown a little of the same restraint here (in addition to an introduction and conclusion, he introduces each chapter). I enjoyed learning about the circumstances that led him to forgo medical school for a career in radio but grew weary of his platitudinous statements about StoryCorps. He writes that the interviews honor ordinary people who, “in their day-to-day acts of kindness, courage, and humanity, embody the true spirit of our nation.” Elsewhere he says that many of the project’s trained facilitators say “they’ve come to recognize a simple truth: that people are basically good.”

The temptation to wrap a bow around these stories and present them as a tidy package representing something uplifting is understandable, but I didn’t find the many broad pronouncements — about humanity in general or Americans in particular — convincing. Call me a cynic, but aren’t the people who’d go to the booths a fairly self-selecting sample? Once in there, wouldn’t many want to present their best selves? And to the extent that there are bad people out there, they probably aren’t being flooded with invitations from friends and relatives to record an interview.

The beauty of Isay’s project is that it’s not necessary to draw conclusions from the interviews as a whole. Like the millions of inhabitants of this country, the 49 stories collected in Listening Is an Act of Love resist easy generalization. But whether inspiring, amusing, or devastating, they’re a pleasure to read, and their emotional power resonates long after the book has been closed.