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

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Drawn from the work of StoryCorps, the largest and most ambitious private oral history project in American history, comes this tapestry of the stories Americans have been sharing from their lives to leave behind to their loved ones.

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

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Drawn from the work of StoryCorps, the largest and most ambitious private oral history project in American history, comes this tapestry of the stories Americans have been sharing from their lives to leave behind to their loved ones.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
It's especially apt that this collection of oral histories would receive a glowing review ("absolutely remarkable… history in the richest sense of the word") from Studs Terkel, who first brought this genre to a wide popular audience. Listening Is an Act of Love is the first book culmination of StoryCorps, a nationwide project to record an oral history of America as witnessed by everyday people. The stories are as private as a family medical crisis or as public as experiencing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Moments of time etched forever in our memories.
Publishers Weekly

Four years ago. StoryCorps set out to record an oral history of America with the voices of everyday people. This book is a collection of the most compelling excerpts from more than 10,000 interviews recorded, compiled by StoryCorps founder Isay (Flophouse), a radio documentary producer and MacArthur fellow. And they are compelling. Each one captures a moment in time-historical, emotional or personal-that make us who we are. As simple stories of humanity, each one has its own potency, with themes of family, love, dedication and struggle. In one of the most emotionally wrought stories, a father sits down with his daughter and remembers her late mother and older brother, who both died of cancer within months of each other. To gather the stories, StoryCorps provides a facility, recording equipment and a facilitator, then waits for people to invite loved ones, friends, grandparents to sit down for a 40-minute session. A copy of the tape is filed in the Library of Congress, and parts have aired on NPR. As Isay says, "I realized how many people among us feel completely invisible, believe their lives don't matter, and fear they'll someday be forgotten." Photos. (Nov. 13)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
USA Today
Each interview is a revelation.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
As heartwarming as a holiday pumpkin pie and every bit as homey . . . what emerges in these compelling pages is hard-won wisdom and boundless humanity.
Library Journal

Isay (Flophouse: Life on the Bowery) has devoted almost two decades of his life to various documentary studies, firmly believing that the soul of the nation is found in the stories of its everyday people, a belief that any reader of this oral history collection will come to support. The interviews in this book are excerpted from the more than 10,000 collected by StoryCorps, a singularly ambitious oral history project founded by Isay and colleagues in 2003. Since its humble beginnings in a rented recording studio in Manhattan's Chinatown, StoryCorps has interviewed people from all walks of life, in all 50 states. Participants receive a CD of their interview, and a second CD is placed in an archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. In this gathering from their massive undertaking, we read the tales of survivors, trailblazers, bounty hunters, teachers, doctors, and bus drivers, to name a few. Some of their stories are excruciatingly tragic, revolving around events burned into our collective memory. Others are so sweetly personal that one might feel voyeuristic reading them. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ6/15/07.]
—Tessa L.H. Minchew

The Barnes & Noble Review
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. -- Barbara Spindel

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York,, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143142614
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 11/8/2007
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Abridged, 1 CD, 1 hour
  • Pages: 1
  • Sales rank: 498,663
  • Product dimensions: 4.94 (w) x 5.62 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Dave Isay

Dave Isay is the founder of StoryCorps and its parent company, Sound Portraits Productions. Over the past two decades his radio documentary work has won nearly every award in broadcasting, including five Peabody awards. Dave has also received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a United States Artists Fellowship. He is the author (or coauthor) of four books based on Sound Portraits radio stories, including Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago and Flophouse. He and his wife, Jennifer Gonnerman, live in Brooklyn.

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Table of Contents

Listening is an Act of Love Introduction
Author's Note

Home and Family
Work and Dedication
History and Struggle
Fire and Water

The Story of StoryCorps
The Conversation of a Lifetime
Do-It-Yourself Checklist
Favorite StoryCorps Questions
StoryCorps Facilitators, 2003-06

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 21 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 21 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2009

    This book makes a meaningful gift

    I have been buying this book for friends -- have probably bought every one on the shelves for the last couple of months. I give it to graduates, to young people (my 10 year old granddaughter loved it), and to family members. It has an appeal across age and circumstance. And the part in the back about how to do your own interview is priceless -- I have used it with students who are learning how to interview for research projects. A marvelous book!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 16, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Wow! Wow! Wow!

    Listening is an Act of Love is completely and totally worth reading ... and sharing with others. I wrote a note to myself at the top of each new "interview"/story, listing the names of the people with whom I want to share that given story. It's rare to find a book that is a quick read that still pulls you in and takes you to a place that is surprisingly deep. The numerous individual stories in the book each stand alone -- but once you read one, it's hard to put the book down. After I read the last story I sat back and thought, "Wow. This book really helps bring value and dignity to such a wide variety of human beings -- including some people who we'd tend to look down at if we hadn't taken the time to practice this "act of love" = listening to their stories." Loved this book! I'm ready to go out and interview the people in my life, both my loved ones -- and any strangers who come across my path and who need an ear.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2007

    A reviewer

    Once done with this book, even the most hard and calloused person will have a new appreciation for life. I myself look at my surroundings with new eyes, cherishing my family like never before. This all may sound like an overstatement, but once you read the book, you will understand. These stories remind us that every person counts.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2007

    Bearing Witness to Deep Human Connection

    I'd been deeply moved hearing some of the participants from Dave Isay's Story Corp Project express themselves with simple eloquence on radio and television. It remained to be seen, however,whether he could capture all the critical inflections of tone, tempo,phrasing, voice in the written word. He has, beautifully. This is a book that will alter the way you view the person standing next to you on the subway, the panhandler, the pregnant teenager. It is something I want to read together with my teeaged daughter, so that she can appreciate the majesty of these lives, and the potential in her own.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 8, 2008

    I wish I could find more of these!!! Worth the money!

    I love listening to this CD. If you are looking for the perfect gift this is it! I listened to these short stories on a trip with my family. It's great. Your family will enjoy the real life leassons about tolerance, responsiblity, compassion, childhood and what life is really all about. I could listen to this CD over and over. I have loaned it to family members because I love sharing the lessons. I really wish Dave Isay would compile one for every holiday season, this story collection is wonderful.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    Must Read--A book for all ages to rekindle the values often forgotten

    A nation is not defined by the imaginary borders drawn across it. It is defined by the people that make up it, and the history they create each and every day. The Story Corps project began based upon this idea, of giving everybody in America a voice. Listening Is an Act of Love is a collection of stories told by the people themselves that give you glimpses into everyday American life. David Isay compiles these stories to teach life lessons and remind all of what's really important in a materialistic world-the bonds and connections made between people.
    The book is divided into five sections and each section expresses an individual theme. The first being: "Home and Family" where each story is about appreciating the love and dedication that goes into forming your average American family. The second section is called: "Work and Dedication", and is about the everyday people who serve society. Through this section Isay expresses the idea that people are by nature good. Section three is called "Journeys" and it's about the struggles and hardships so many have overcome. Its main lesson is to not judge a book by its cover. The next section is titled: "History and Struggle" and it focuses on the colorful background of the people that make up America, the people that have been through America's most trying times; teaching people that history is not just a list of facts and dates, it's the documentation of human lives and experiences. The last section is called "fire and water" detailing stories of America's two greatest tragedies: 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. The message is to appreciate those around you, those that make up your everyday world because as Norene (a person interviewed) puts it (pg. 205): "you never know when you won't see them again."
    What I loved about the book was the variety of stories it told and the dialects the stories were told in. The stories ranged from that of everyday heroes trying to put food on the table to narcotics cops. It gave me a perception and personal connection to the lives of the people that make up America. However, what I disliked was that it didn't give the explanation of the Story Corps Project until the very end. Without the explanation the memoirs seemed random and the purpose and themes didn't really connect. Overall though, this is definitely a must-read because it gives insight to the uniqueness and individuality of everyday people. I would also recommend For One More Day by Mitch Albom, a novel that is written as a memoir. Its main subject is also the value of life.
    Listening Is an Act of Love gives strength and inspiration and teaches life lessons. It celebrates the individual and reminds people of the value of the things that are commonly taken for granted. This is book celebrates both the country and the individual.

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  • Posted July 11, 2010

    Who Knew?

    I can honestly say when I was told I had to read this book for my college psychology class I was the opposite of thrilled. I thought peoples life stories how could they be that interesting honestly? Well I would like to say I was wrong the second I read the first story I could not stop reading. There are truly stories that make you almost every emotion, and they are all true snippets of people's stories. I like the fact that this book does not focus on any one topic it touches all topics, and does more than just one story per topic. I think this is a book that is a good read for anyone: students, teachers, parents, book clubs, or anybody.

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  • Posted February 21, 2010

    Everyone Has a Story

    In an effort to record the lives of "ordinary" people, a mobile booth tours the country and allows individuals alone or in pairs to talk about their lives for 40 minutes. The results are the range of human experience: funny, sad, educational, always absorbing. This is a quick read, but take your time with it anyway, to remind yourself that we can learn things from people who seem the least likely to teach us.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2009


    I enjoy listening to the podcast, so I decided to buy the book. These are some of the best stories I have ever heard. It amazes me about all the different stories. Everyone should read this book, they will not be disappointed.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2008

    You will want to share this with whole family

    This is a wonderful experience. You will hear great inspirational stories and even a few humorous stories. I only wish I could buy more stories for road trips. This is a must buy. Play it in the car with your kids and listen to learning start. I truly enjoyed this CD/Book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2007

    Wonderful, made me laugh and cry

    This is a must read. Beautiful stories by every day people. Made me cry it was so touching. Going to buy dozens as holiday gifts for the whole family!!!

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    Posted December 10, 2009

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    Posted September 30, 2010

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    Posted December 8, 2009

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    Posted December 17, 2009

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    Posted January 11, 2010

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    Posted December 31, 2009

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    Posted December 26, 2009

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    Posted January 16, 2010

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    Posted November 23, 2008

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