Neil Gaiman Presents “How Stories Last,” an Insightful Lecture on How Stories Change, Evolve & Endure Through the Centuries

gaiman how stories last

Image by Thier­ry Ehrmann, via Flickr Com­mons

Every­body knows Neil Gaiman, but they all know him best for dif­fer­ent work: writ­ing com­ic books like Sand­man, nov­els like Amer­i­can Gods, tele­vi­sion series like Nev­er­where, movies like Mir­ror­Mask, an ear­ly biog­ra­phy of Duran Duran. What does all that — and every­thing else in the man’s pro­lif­ic career — have in com­mon? Sto­ries. Every piece of work Gaiman does involves him telling a sto­ry of one kind or anoth­er, and so his pro­file in the cul­ture has risen to great heights as, sim­ply, a sto­ry­teller. That made him just the right man for the job when the Long Now Foun­da­tion, with its mis­sion of think­ing far back into the past and far for­ward into the future, need­ed some­one to talk about how cer­tain sto­ries sur­vive through both those time frames and beyond.

“Do sto­ries grow?” Gaiman asks his years-in-the-mak­ing Long Now lec­ture, lis­ten­able on Sound­cloud right below or view­able as a video here. “Pret­ty obvi­ous­ly — any­body who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one per­son to anoth­er knows that they can grow, they can change. Can sto­ries repro­duce? Well, yes. Not spon­ta­neous­ly, obvi­ous­ly — they tend to need peo­ple as vec­tors. We are the media in which they repro­duce; we are their petri dish­es.” He goes on to bring out exam­ples from cave paint­ings, to secret retellings of Gone with the Wind in a Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp, to a warn­ing to future gen­er­a­tions not to dig into nuclear waste sites — designed for pas­sage into the minds of pos­ter­i­ty as a robust­ly craft­ed sto­ry.

Sto­ries, writes the Long Now Foun­da­tion founder Stew­art Brand, “out­com­pete oth­er sto­ries by hang­ing over time. They make it from medi­um to medi­um — from oral to writ­ten to film and beyond. They lose unin­ter­est­ing ele­ments but hold on to the most com­pelling bits or even add some.” He knows that, Gaiman knows that, and I think that all of us who have told sto­ries sense its truth on an instinc­tive lev­el: “The most pop­u­lar ver­sion of the Cin­derel­la sto­ry (which may have orig­i­nat­ed long ago in Chi­na) has kept the glo­ri­ous­ly unlike­ly glass slip­per intro­duced by a care­less French telling.”

Anoth­er beloved British teller of tales, Dou­glas Adams, also had thoughts on the almost bio­log­i­cal nature of lit­er­a­ture. “We were talk­ing about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Gaiman recalled else­where, “which was some­thing which resem­bled an iPad, long before it appeared. And I said when some­thing like that hap­pens, it’s going to be the death of the book. Dou­glas said no. Books are sharks.” And what did he mean by that? “Sharks have been around for a very long time. There were sharks before there were dinosaurs, and the rea­son sharks are still in the ocean is that noth­ing is bet­ter at being a shark than a shark.” So not only do the best sto­ries evolve to last the longest, so do the forms they take.

You can find 18 sto­ries by Neil Gaiman (all free) in this col­lec­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Saun­ders Demys­ti­fies the Art of Sto­ry­telling in a Short Ani­mat­ed Doc­u­men­tary

48 Hours of Joseph Camp­bell Lec­tures Free Online: The Pow­er of Myth & Sto­ry­telling

Neil Gaiman Reads “The Man Who For­got Ray Brad­bury”

Where Do Great Ideas Come From? Neil Gaiman Explains

Aman­da Palmer Ani­mates & Nar­rates Hus­band Neil Gaiman’s Uncon­scious Mus­ings

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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