Saturday, April 5, 2014

Sister Lillian Harrington's Midrash

In the long, long ago, the Lord God searched for people to be his own.

God went to the Greeks and asked, "What can you do for me if I make you my chosen people?"
"We are gifted architects. We can build beautiful temples where people can come in great numbers from all over the world to worship you."
"Thank you very much," God said, and moved on.
Then the Lord God went to the Romans and said, "What can you do for me if I make you my chosen people?"
"We are great builders of roads and bridges. We will build bridges and roads so that the people can find their way to you."
"Thank you very much," God said, and moved on.
Then God went to the Jewish people and asked, "What can you do for me if I make you my chosen people?"
An old rabbi answered for them. "We are not gifted architects. Neither are we great builders of roads and bridges. What we can do is tell stories."
And God said, "Then you will be my people."
Sister Lillian Harrington, OSB, Benedictine Sister of Mount St. Scholastica, Atchison, KS.

This story is quoted in Atchison Blue, by Judith Valente. I heard it while at the Mount Saviour Monastery, where it was read during dinner and caught my ear. I received a copy of it just yesterday. It differs substantially from the traditional Jewish midrash, Sifre Devarim (Deuteronomy) 33:2, which describes God offering the Torah to various nations of the world. Each asked, "What does it say?" To one nation God answered, "Thou shalt not murder." The nation replied, "We can't abide by that." To another nation God responded, "Thou shalt not steal." The nation replied, "We can't follow that rule," and they too rejected the Torah. Finally, God offered the Torah to the people of Israel, who responded, "We will do and we will hear."

Since I am a Jewish storyteller, the story is especially significant to me. I wonder, where did Sister Lillian Harrington find this version? I would like to ask her but, unfortunately, she died a few days ago, on April 1, 2014, at age 96. May she rest in peace.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Words We Use: Storytelling, Folktale, Legend, Myth ...

I just scanned all of the books published in the English language since 1800 and counted the number of times the word “stories” appeared in these books. “Stories” has been on the upsurge since 1968 and peaked in 2003! Here's a graph showing the results, year by year:

Note: Apparently the Ngram Viewer graphs are not visible in Internet Explorer. Try Firefox or Chrome.



Of course, you can see that I scanned a number of other words and phrases as well: storytelling, storyteller, folktales, fairy tales, fables, epics, sagas, myths, legends, and tall tales. Since they occur much less frequently then stories, their results are squished. So here's another graph, without stories, so you can see the other results in more detail.


The results are clear: fables are “out,” myths are “in” (peaking in 1997).  Legends peaked in 1879 but are still hanging in there. Sagas, epics, and fairy tales have had a long and fairly consistent history. As for tall tales – well, who would believe anything I said about tall tales anyway. (After all, I'm writing this on April Fool's Day.)

There appear to be some interesting trends since about 1920 with storyteller and storytelling, so let's take a closer look.


There appears to be steady, slow growth in the appearance of these words between 1930 and 1970 when their use started an upsurge. In 1978 storytelling overtook storyteller and continued to grow at a faster rate. Storyteller peaked in 1996 and has declined since. Storytelling peaked in 2003 and declined slightly since. I wonder if the difference in the use of storytelling and storyteller has significance.

To tell you the truth, I might have misled you by saying “I just scanned all of the books published in the English language since 1800 … ” The truth is, I used the Google Books Ngram Viewer. Indeed, you can quickly perform this analysis for any words or phrases you choose – in English (American, British, or All) Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Spanish, Russian, or Italian.
For more information about the underlying data and how to perform this analysis visit the Google Books Ngram Viewer. Please let me know if you find some interesting results.