My grandmothers--one a child of Conestoga wagons and the dustbowl, and the other born to an Italian immigrant family--lived through a staggering amount of history and change during their nine decades on this earth. Back in the mid-1980s I recorded interviews with them about their lives. One grandmother was very detailed and forthcoming with her memories; the other was reluctant, and didn't think she had anything worth telling. Both interviews were absolutely fascinating, which prompted me to interview other members of my family so the stories could be saved for future generations. It's easy enough to read about the large and small events of the 20th century, but to hear about them from an eyewitness paints a completely different picture. Thus, it was with great anticipation that I opened the book Listening is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project. I definitely wasn't disappointed. In this book edited by Dave Isay, the founder of The StoryCorps Project, forty-nine story excerpts were selected from the ten thousand interviews they had recorded by that time. Similar to the Federal Writers' Project conducted by the Work's Projects Administration in the 1930s and ‘40s, the StoryCorps Project lets us hear "the eloquence, power, grace, and poetry in the words of everyday people." StoryCorps' mission is to honor and celebrate one another's lives through listening, with a focus on enhancing the lives of the participants rather than creating a body of work for an audience. Most of the interviews are between relatives: parent and child, spouses, grandparent and grandchild, siblings, etc. But several are between friends, and a few are individuals interviewed by a StoryCorps facilitator. Isay does a great job of selecting material for this book. The stories range from how a mother helped her young daughter with a school project, to what it was like to be a sanitation worker in the late 1960s, to how it felt to survive the World Trade Center attacks. Reading these interviews you will laugh and learn and cry, and be amazed at how powerful the lives of seemingly ordinary people can be. The stories, grouped into five general categories, are quite compelling. In one, a New York City bus driver talks about a certain elderly female passenger that he remembers. In another, a nurse describes the situation in a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina. In another, an 81-year-old North Dakota woman tells her daughter why 1936 was a particularly odoriferous year in her sixth grade class. The last section of the book tells the fascinating tale of how the StoryCorps program came about, and then encourages you to have that "conversation of a lifetime" with someone you know. It even includes a do-it-yourself checklist and four pages of favorite StoryCorps questions. I still occasionally listen to the interviews with my grandmothers. As much as their words, it's the timbre of their voices that brings them back to life. I hope that reading this book will inspire you to seek out the remarkable stories in your own life and the lives of those you know.
Recommended by Angela Prandini