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

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

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by Dave Isay

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As heard on NPR-a wondrous nationwide celebration of our shared humanity

StoryCorps founder and legendary radio producer Dave Isay selects the most memorable stories from StoryCorps? collection, creating a moving portrait of American life.

The voices here connect us to real people and their lives-to their experiences of profound joy, sadness, courage,

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As heard on NPR-a wondrous nationwide celebration of our shared humanity

StoryCorps founder and legendary radio producer Dave Isay selects the most memorable stories from StoryCorps? collection, creating a moving portrait of American life.

The voices here connect us to real people and their lives-to their experiences of profound joy, sadness, courage, and despair, to good times and hard times, to good deeds and misdeeds. To read this book is to be reminded of how rich and varied the American storybook truly is, how resistant to easy categorization or stereotype. We are our history, individually and collectively, and Listening Is an Act of Love touchingly reminds us of this powerful truth.

Dave Isay's newest book, Callings, will be published by Penguin Press on April 19, 2016.

Editorial Reviews

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

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt


Recording your own interviews:

We encourage you to participate in StoryCorps. Please visit our website,, to learn about the locations of our StoryBooths across the country. We also have two permanent facilities open year-round in Manhattan. Come visit New York City, make an appointment and record your loved one’s voice for history. If you want to record an interview but are not able to visit one of our StoryBooths, we encourage you to do-it-yourself. Conduct your own interview and ask the questions you’ve always wanted to ask. You may well be surprised by the power of the experience.Here’s how:

1. Pick a Storyteller

Start the process by figuring out whom you want to interview. A grandparent? An old friend? Your mom? The person you invite might be hesitant. “I don’t have much to talk about,” he’ll say, or, “You already know everything about my life.” Remind your friend, your mother—whoever it is—how important you think their story is and how valuable it will be to future generations. Let that person know you would be honored to record his story.

2. Create a Question List

No matter how well you know your storyteller, a little preparation will improve the quality of your interview enormously. What would you like to learn from that person? We’ve designed a question generator to make preparing questions a little easier. You can find it at

Here are some questions that have yielded great responses:

· What have you learned in life?
· What does your future hold?
· What are you most proud of?
· Do you have any regrets?
· What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?
· Is there something about yourself that you think no one knows?
· How would you like to be remembered?

We’ve also found that at the end of a session it can be powerful to turn the tables and tell the person you’re interviewing what they mean to you.

3. Purchase or Borrow Recording Equipment(and Get Comfortable with It)

It is not difficult to make a terrific and clear recording of someone’s voice. We strongly suggest that you create a recording with the best sound quality possible—it’s much more enjoyable and easy to listen to and will be appreciated by future generations. You will need three pieces of equipment: a recording device, a microphone and headphones. (You can learn more about equipment options at our website.) The recording equipment can be as simple as a micro cassette recorder or basic digital voice recorder, a pair of headphones and an inexpensive microphone (handheld, not clip-on). You can find both basic and more sophisticated recording equipment at your local electronics store. (StoryCorps also has a small equipment loan program called StoryKits, which you can also learn about at our website.)

Whatever equipment you choose, we strongly suggest that you practice using your equipment before you sit down for your interview.

A few things to remember:

· It’s best to always wear headphones when recording. Your headphones are your “ears” for the interview; they tell you exactly what you’ll hear on your finished recording. Use them to adjust the microphone position so the sound is as clear as possible.
· Hold the microphone close, about one spread-out hand’s length from your storyteller’s mouth. Always hold the microphone in your hand, moving it between you and your storyteller.
· Be careful of microphone noise. The low rumbling sound you hear when you move the microphone in your hands is known as “mic-handling noise.” You can avoid it by using a light touch and not shifting around too much. If you need to move the microphone, make sure to wait until your storyteller has finished speaking.

You may want to get together a group of friends and purchase recording equipment together. Someone from the group can act as the “engineer” during your interview and operate the equipment so you can focus on asking the questions. You can also share and talk about the stories you’ve recorded with the group.

4. Choose an Interview Location

Pick the quietest place possible. A carpeted living room or bedroom is often best. Avoid large empty rooms and kitchens, which are filled with reflective surfaces and appliance noise. We try to make the inside of each StoryCorps booth something of a sacred space, as peaceful and serene as possible. You may want to do the same: turn the lights low. Do whatever you can to make you and your subject as comfortable as possible.

Prevent noisy distractions. Close the door; unplug the phone; turn off your cell phone. Turn off anything that is making noise: buzzing fluorescent lights, air conditioners, fans. Listen for noise during the interview as well. If your storyteller fiddles with her necklace, for example, feel free to let her know it’s making noise. Never record interviews with a radio or television on in the background.

5. Set Up and Test the Equipment

Set up your equipment as early as possible and make sure you’re comfortable with it. This way you’ll be able to focus on the person you are interviewing and not the equipment. Before you begin your interview, record your storyteller answering a few warm-up questions such as “Can you describe what this room looks like?” or, “Tell me what you had for breakfast.” Stop, rewind and listen to the recording you just made to make sure everything is working. Remember to press RECORD again when you start the interview for real.

6. Begin the Conversation

Start your interview by stating your name, your age, the date and the location of the interview. For example, “My name is Annie Smith. I’m forty-one years old. The date is November 23, 2008, and I’m sitting with my grandfather Mark Smith in his living room in Hannibal, Missouri.” Now ask your storyteller to state the same information. Use your question list. Remember, the questions you write in advance are just suggestions. Trust your instincts. If something interests you or merits further exploration, ask more questions. Sometimes your storyteller will need “permission” to talk about a certain topic. Granting that permission might be as easy as saying, “Tell me more.” Don’t let the question list constrain you. Feel free to ask questions in whatever order feels right. Take breaks if your storyteller needs them. Try not to say “uh huh” or interrupt when something interesting or important is being said. You can always use visual cues like nodding your head when you want to encourage the storyteller to keep going.

7. Get Great Stories

Here are some tips for helping the conversation flow:

Listen closely. Look at your storyteller’s eyes, not the mic. Nod your head. Smile. Stay interested and engaged.

Be yourself. You can laugh with the person you are interviewing or even cry with him. Real moments are the best moments.

Stick with the good stuff. When you hear something that moves you, feel free to talk about it more. If the current topic isn’t what you wanted to put on tape, gently steer the conversation back on course.

Ask emotional questions. Questions such as “How does this make you feel?” often elicit interesting responses. Don’t be afraid to ask.

Respect your subject. If there’s a topic she just doesn’t want to talk about, respect her wishes and move on.

Take notes during the interview. Write down any questions or stories you might want to return to later in your interview.

Be curious and honest and keep an open heart. Great things will happen.

8. Wrap It Up

Before you turn off your recorder, do two things: ask the storyteller if there is anything else that she wants to talk about and thank her. Sharing a story can be difficult for some people. It’s a privilege to have someone share her story with you. Express your gratitude. If you have a digital camera, take a picture of your interviewee against a plain background (or, if there’s someone else around, have him take a picture of the two of you) in the style of the StoryCorps pictures you find in this book.

Make sure to label your recordings properly, make copies for relatives and friends and store them in a safe place so they’ll be available for generations to come. (Unfortunately, StoryCorps does not have the capacity at the present time to enter these do-it-yourself interviews into our archives.)

9. Share the Conversation

The conversation doesn’t have to end once you turn off your recorder. In fact, it may just be the beginning. With the permission of your storyteller, you might share the interview by making copies of your recording to give to family and friends. You might also host a listening party. Invite others to your home to listen to your recording and share a conversation afterward. You could also listen to StoryCorps stories on our website.

10. Plant a Seed

Storytelling can be a powerful tool, and your imagination is really the limit of what you can do with it. If you are a teacher, for instance, you might consider playing clips in your classroom as part of a history or writing unit. If you are part of a mentoring program, you could interview your mentor or mentee about their life experiences. Use the checklist and questions that follow to make sharing stories a part of your family, community or working life. Congratulations! You have just joined the StoryCorps revolution!


Things to Bring to the Interview

· Your question list
· Recording device
· Microphone
· Headphones
· Extra batteries and tapes
· Pen or pencil

Before You Begin Your Interview

· Find the quietest place possible to record.
· Turn off radios and TVs and move away from noisy appliances like refrigerators and clocks.
· Make sure you and your storyteller are comfortable.
· Do a test recording, holding the microphone about one spread-out hand’s distance from your storyteller’s mouth. If anything sounds strange, stop and figure out what the problem is before starting the interview.

During Your Interview

· Double-check that the recorder is actually recording (not on PAUSE).
· Start each tape with an ID: State your name, your age, the date and the location of the interview. Ask your storyteller to state the same information.
· Don’t say “Uh huh” when your subject is talking. Instead, nod your head.
· Ask emotional questions such as “How did this make you feel?”
· Look your storyteller in the eyes and stay engaged.
· Respect your subject always.
· Don’t be afraid to stick with amazing moments in the interview—if you hear something you’re interested in, ask follow-up questions.
· Be curious and keep an open heart. Great things will happen.

When You Finish

· If you recorded the interview on tape, label it. Store the tapes in a cool place out of direct sunlight.



· What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?
· What are you most proud of?
· What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?
· Is there something about yourself that you think no one knows?
· How would you like to be remembered?
· Is there anything we didn’t talk about that you would like to add?

Childhood and Family

· When and where were you born?
· Where did you grow up and what was it like?
· Tell me about your parents.
· Did you get into trouble? What was the worst thing you did?
· Do you have any siblings? What were they like growing up?
· What did you look like?
· How would you describe yourself as a child? Were you happy?
· What is your best memory of childhood? Worst?
· Did you have a nickname? How’d you get it?
· Who were your best friends? What were they like?
· How would you describe a perfect day when you were young?
· What did you think your life would be like when you were older?
· Can you tell me some classic stories from your childhood?
School and Education

· What are your best memories of grade school/high school/college/graduate school? Worst memories?
· What kind of student were you?
· What would you do for fun?
· How would your classmates remember you?
· Was there a teacher or teachers who had a particularly strong influence on your life? Tell me about them.
· Do you have any other favorite stories from school?

Love and Romance

· Do you have a love of your life?
· When did you first fall in love?
· Can you tell me about your first kiss?
· What was your first serious relationship?
· What lessons have you learned from your relationships?

Marriage and Commitment

· How did you meet your husband/wife?
· How did you know he/she was “the one”?
· How did you propose?
· What were the best times? The most difficult times?
· Did you ever get divorced? Can you tell me about it?
· What advice do you have for young couples?
· Do you have any favorite stories from your marriage or about your husband/wife?


· When did you first find out that you’d be a parent? How did you feel?
· Can you describe the moment when you saw your child for the first time?
· How has being a parent changed you?
· What are your dreams for your children?
· Do you remember when your last child left home for good?
· Do you have any favorite stories about your kids?


· What do you do for a living?
· Tell me about how you got into your line of work.
· Do you like your job?
· What did you want to be when you grew up?
· What lessons has your work life taught you?
· Do you plan on retiring? If so, when? How do you feel about it?
· Do you have any favorite stories from your work life?

Religion and Spirituality

· Can you tell me about your religious beliefs/spiritual beliefs?
· What is your religion?
· Have you experienced any miracles?
· What was the most profound spiritual moment of your life?
· Do you believe in an afterlife? What do you think it will be like?
· When you meet God, what would you want to say to Him?

Ethnicity and Family Heritage

· What is your ethnic background?
· Where is your mom’s family from? Where is your dad’s family from?
· What traditions have been passed down in your family?
· Who were your favorite relatives? Can you tell me any stories about them?
· Do you remember any of the stories they used to tell you?
· What are the classic family stories? Jokes? Songs?

War and Service

· Were you in the military?
· Did you go to war? What was it like?
· How did war change you?
· During your service, can you recall times when you were afraid?
· What are your strongest memories from your time in the military?
· What lessons did you learn from this time in your life?


· Can you tell me about your illness?
· Do you think about dying?
· Are you scared?
· How do you imagine your death?
· Do you believe in an afterlife?
· Do you regret anything?
· Do you look at your life differently now from before you were diagnosed?
· Do you have any last wishes?
· If you were to give advice to me or my children, or even children to come in our family, what would it be?
· What are the most important things you’ve learned from life?
· Has this illness changed you? What have you learned?
· How do you want to be remembered?

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“Each interview is a revelation.”—USA Today

“ 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.”—Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
JoyReader More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
HardingM68 More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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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CasperCate More than 1 year ago
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.
WawaLW More than 1 year ago
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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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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Guest More than 1 year ago
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!
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!!!