It is in our nature to tell stories. Storytelling, whether factual or fictional, is an intrinsic human characteristic. From cave painting to novels to movies, stories have always remained a fundamental aspect of human existence. Although the methods have changed, the desire to tell and hear stories has remained unchanged, and still greatly impacts the way we look at the world around us. The earliest physical evidence of storytelling that has been discovered is from the Lascaux Caves in the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France. Discovered in 1940 by a group of French children, a series of cave paintings that date back to sometime between 15,000 and 13,000 B.C. depicted a variety of animals and one image of a human being. When closely examined, these paintings actually follow a series of events. They depict a series of rituals performed and hunting practices- a story in its simplest sense.
The earliest examples of written literature appear to have originated in ancient Mesopotamia. The Sumerian civilization first developed writing around 3400 B.C., when they began making markings on clay tablets in a script known as cuneiform- the oldest existing form of written script. Their texts usually consisted of economic and administrative documents but by the third millennium B.C., Sumerian scribes were also copying down essays, hymns, poetry and myths. Two of their oldest known literary works, both of which exist in written versions dating to around 2500 B.C., are the “Kesh Temple Hymn”- an ancient ode to the Kesh temple and the deities that inhabited it- and the “Instructions of Shuruppak,”- a piece of wisdom literature supposedly handed down from the Sumerian king Shuruppak to his son, Ziusudra. One of Shuruppak’s proverbs warns the boy not to “pass judgment when you drink beer”; still very relevant advice from King Shuruppak all these centuries later.
While Shuruppak’s fatherly wisdom is one of the most ancient examples of written literature, history’s oldest known fictional story is probably the mythical Sumerian poem “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” which first appeared as early as the third millennium B.C. Over the course of twelve clay tablets’ worth of text, the demi-God King Gilgamesh goes on a classic hero’s journey that sees him slay monsters, rub elbows with the gods, and search for the key to immortality—all with predictably tragic results. The Epic of Gilgamesh started out as a series of Sumerian poems and tales dating back to 2100 B.C., but the most complete version was written around the 12th century B.C. by the Babylonians. The story was later lost to history after 600 B.C., and it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that archaeologists finally discovered a copy near the Iraqi city of Mosul. Since then, scholars have hailed the 4,000-year-old epic as a foundational text in world literature.
Widespread literacy is a feature of modern society and so up until recent centuries writing was perhaps not the most effective method of communicating stories to a wide group of people; drawings, the spoken word, and the written word have all worked together to transmit stories from person to person down through history. We are fortunate enough to live in a society where stories are widely available everywhere we turn in countless different forms. This is a great era in which to be a storyteller, and especially in which to be a writer. In the past many of those with a voice today might never have been provided with one. Now, more and more people are afforded the opportunity to share their stories. With the invention of the Internet comes the possibility of self-publishing, social media posting, blogging, YouTube- the list goes on. Of course, this also means that genuinely anyone can tell any stories they like. Anyone can publish a book online now. Anyone can be a writer. This of course has its advantages and disadvantages, the most obvious being that there is a shocking amount of literature released everyday. In the past only the best stories were published; in buying a book you were guaranteed that at least one other generally unbiased person (the publisher) liked it. Now, we lose that guarantee.
I have always been a bit of a literary snob. Most of my favourite books (and films) predate the 21st century and I am extremely picky about what I read. It’s hard to reconcile my own tastes with what I have actually written, given that Margaret Mitchell and George Orwell wouldn’t have touched my writing with a ten-foot pole. One could argue that a considerable amount of what is written and published today would be better off never seeing the light of day. But as soon as I begin to think along these lines I am forced to reflect on the history of mankind. Stories- good, bad, and awful- have always had great weight in society. They are how we connect with each other and with those that came before us. The things that writers say today aren’t really all that different from what they were saying five thousand years ago, and there is something truly beautiful in that. What matters to us now- really matters- love, friendship, family, success- mattered then too. The struggles and the challenges that we face aren’t all that different either. When you strip a story down to its bare bones, no matter what form it takes, the key themes and motifs and lessons never really change. In that sense, stories are a key part of what makes us human. If society were ever to forget just how important these stories are we would simply lose the very essence of ourselves. We are living in a time when stories are at once both easier to access than ever, but also more undervalued. We want movies, novels, music, theatre, all valuable storytelling forms, for free. We very rarely think of the immense effort and talent that goes into creating them. It is often easy to become bogged down with the stresses of modern life- school, work, college- and take our access to Art for granted, but then it is important also to remember that great quote from ‘The Dead Poet’s Society’, a quote which really captures the very heart of our existence: “Medicine, law, business, engineering; these are all noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love; these are what we stay alive for.” Stories, and everything they stand for, in a way, are at the core of what it means to be human.
Anyone with a story to share has something to say and thus we should celebrate the widespread availability of literature today instead of condemning it. I have always been rather pretentious when it comes to literature but I realise now that in limiting myself to only the ‘classics’, the literary giants of yesterday, I limit myself to the voices of countless others that can serve to enhance my own understanding of the world and our place in it. Nowadays it is easier than ever to broaden our minds with an entire world of different voices at our fingertips. Of course, not every story out there is going to have the same value as ‘The Great Gatsby’. Not every writer is as eloquent as Jane Austen. But amongst the millions of books available online are sure to be some truly valuable hidden gems. The more I discover about the world of self-publishing the more I admire it. And so I aim to broaden my own mind and discover stories I once might have considered outside of my own tastes. To seek out other perspectives, other views and ideas that in the past may well have been shot down or censored, is a step everyone should take. By limiting ourselves to stories of particular genres, time periods, writers, themes, we are simply limiting ourselves to rehashing the same stories over and over. Early twentieth century fiction will never cease to amaze me, but there are so many other voices out there with just as much worth. There are so many stories out there for me to learn from. Stories are how we learn, after all, about the human condition, about everything that shapes us, and have the power to change our lives. They say that everyone has a story to tell and if modern technology allows us a way to share it, that is certainly something to celebrate.