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True Tales of American Life

by Paul Auster

Edited and Introduced by Paul Auster

In 1999 Paul Auster and the hosts of a US radio programme invited listeners to send in true stories, to be read as part of the National Story Project. A staggering 4,000 were sent and this book is Auster's selection of 180, grouped into 10 different categories such as Love, Dreams and Families. Auster writes that he grouped them to make order out of the chaos of voices and contrasting styles.
In the introduction Auster writes that there is huge variation in the lives of the writers. "People of all ages and from all walks of life…a postman, a merchant seaman, a trolley - bus driver…a restorer and player of pianos, a crime - scene cleaner…two priests…farmers and ex-servicemen." Although they are 50:50 male/female, Auster never gave a thought to demographic balance, and writes that he "selected the stories solely on the basis of merit: for their humanity, for their truth, for their charm."

All of the stories are glimpses of the private world of American people: they are small, often very specific tales, which are quite hypnotic to read, perhaps because of the sheer numbers of them and the format of reading one after the other. I found that reading them became a bit addictive, I couldn't stop, and it reminded me of the feeling you get when playing cards and become quite unable to quit because of the excitement and anticipation of being dealt a really interesting hand. It's also a bit like leafing through the private diaries of, or photo albums of, many, many people, and this gave me a strange and even creepy feeling. Some of the stories are very private, even confidential, and I had to remind myself that reading them was O.K. and not prying, as they had been sent in, delivered up for public consumption. But what motivated the public airing of some of them? Many of the events told happened many years before and there is an enormous sense of release in the telling and passing on of the load they carry. Some speak of unresolved feelings - shame, torment and guilt, and reading them evokes huge empathy. Some swagger and brag, and have already left the emotional realm and are the stuff of urban myth. Some are very, very small and tell of small coincidences and observations. Others are too strange for words and make us feel rather exhilarated that such peculiar things could happen to ordinary people who are just like us.

Reading so many stories (it is a massive book) left me with a sense of wonder at our need to tell stories and that storytelling is a very powerful medium - many of them linger in the mind and perhaps get incorporated into our own experience of life. It would seem that everyone has a story to tell and Paul Auster, a master storyteller and observer of life, has put together a wonderful book, rich with material for groups to discuss. So many of them would make wonderful short films, a real snapshot of true tales of American life.

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