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Study Questions for “The Storyteller”

Some questions to guide your reading/thinking on Benjamin’s formidable text for Thursday’s discussion:

  1. Early in the essay, Benjamin claims that, in the early 20thC, “It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.” Why is this? What is it about modern life that makes storytelling more problematic than in the past?
  2. What are the two kinds of “experience” that feed into traditionally storytelling, according to Benjamin? How does Benjamin use this distinction to link, on the one hand, literary form and, on the other, labor? [n.b., in the original German, Benjamin distinguishes between Erlebnis and Erfahrung, which both often translate to “experience” in English]
  3. WB claims that the novel’s rise in the 18th-19th centuries is the “earliest symptom” of a process culminating in “decline of storytelling.” Why? I thought that novels are storytelling!
  4. What does WB make of the rise of “informational” writing, such as news articles? How do these new literary forms compare to traditional storytelling?
  5. Why, for Benjamin, is death so central to storytelling? What happens to the relationship between death and storytelling in modernity, with the rise of the novel?
  6. More German, folks! What is the difference between remembrance (Eingedenken) and reminiscence (Gedächtnis)? How do these categories map onto a) the deep historical currents WB is tracing between the “old days” and “modernity,” to speak very broadly, and b) the “story” and the “novel”?
  7. Near the end of the essay, Benjamin claims that the story and the novel are shaped in a fundamentally different way: what is the distinctive closure of each form? How does this mode of closure relate to a) WBs discussion of death throughout the essay and b) the distinctiveness of the novel as a genre?
  8. What are some questions we might raise about Benjamin’s argument in light of our study of the audiobook? In what ways does listening to an a-book edition of a recent novel on our phone while commuting to work square with Benjamin’s thesis, and in what ways might it force a revision of it?

ASSIGNMENT: “found” audiobook + presentation

For our next meeting on 9/13, I want you to write a blog post and report on it with a very brief (max 5 min) presentation on any audiobook version of a fiction text that you can get your hands on. Sources might include:

  • free/open texts read by amateurs on librivox.org (which Rubery mentions in his article)
  • texts you download/check out from your local library or the GC’s library
  • texts you buy from iTunes or Google Play or audible.com
  • texts you own or discover at flea markets/secondhand stores

I’d like you to think about and comment on some of the following:

  • production values: how much went into the recording, in terms of vocal training, editing, recording technology, etc.?
  • style: is there a single voice or multiple voices? Does the narrator (or do the narrators) do “voice characterization,” modulating the voice for different characters, or not?
  • fidelity: is the recording abridged or unabridged? Does it stick rigorously to the text or deviate from it?
  • affect: what does it feel like to “read” this text? How does it differ from reading a printed work of fiction?

interactive, annotated Bartleby on Slate

Pretty cool version of Bartleby edited by a Slate writer, Andrew Kahn, last year. It’s richly illustrated and contains a wide range of notes that provide historical context and a sense of some of the diversity of critical opinions on the text over the years since its publication. And there’s even an audiobook version on the site for good measure.

As such, it also points towards our second collaborative project together, in which we’ll be doing something similar (though with much lower production values!) with Benito Cereno, so as you check it out, think about what Kahn did to make this work. Or not.