Storytelling Wisdom from My Grandpa
Updated: Mar 1, 2022
My Grandpa Ho, my Dad, Christopher, who was a book critic for the New York Times, and me
By Rachel Lehmann-Haupt
Many researchers who study storytelling believe it all started with our grandparents. The elders of our ancient tribes gathered around the campfire to tell stories of heroes, wars, hunting and gathering, adventures, and family dramas, to provide a moral compass to help the younger generations to navigate their lives. Some believe it was these stories that evolved into the world’s religions.
In my family, storytellers go back generations. When I was a child, my grandfather didn’t tell me a lot of stories, but he asked me many questions. Do you read? Do you believe in God? Do you like hot chocolate? It was only recently that I turned to his stories, and in particular, one of the many books he wrote, called The Life of the Book: How the Book Is Written, Printed, Published, Sold and Read, which came out in 1957. In it, I found so many pieces of storytelling wisdom that are still pertinent today, even for the new and evolving modes of storytelling on the web, in apps, and beyond.
My grandfather, Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt, better known as Grandpa Ho, was a bibliographer and a curator of rare books at Columbia University. After World War II, he took an assignment from the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, which the Allied powers had set up to hunt for artistic and cultural artifacts that had been stolen or stockpiled by the Nazis, hoping to return them to their owners or preserve them after the destruction of the war. (As we watch Russian missiles bomb Ukraine, it's hard not to be reminded of this totalitarian past). This group of American and British museum curators, art historians, librarians, architects, and artists, was known as the Monuments Men (even though women were part of it, too). Given his expertise, my grandfather was responsible for the books.
I can only imagine what my grandfather would say about modern storytelling, the Internet, and the new forms of distribution through digital tablets, apps, and social media. I think he would cringe at the political polarization, the dissemination of false information, and especially the banning of books.
When he returned to the US, he started writing about storytelling and the history and making of books. In The Life of the Book, he writes that he took on the topic because his Scottish godmother once told him: “Know something about everything and everything about something.” In this book about books, he teaches his reader “everything about something.”
One observation that I particularly liked is intended for anyone who is questioning why they are taking on the arduous task of writing a book. He explains what a book can set out to achieve: “Of course, not all books can be considered valuable material of importance. ... But the most valuable service of the book lies in its permanency, in its capacity to preserve carefully selected observations, experiences, and artistic expressions of lasting value.”
He also reminds us that there is no timeline for telling your story.
“It often does not take an author long to get such an idea; sometimes it strikes him like a flash,” he writes. “But to turn such a dream into reality, to express it in words which can be understood by other people, is often a long and tedious task.”
Of course, this involves practicalities like deadlines and the need to get a product to market, but to offer some perspective, he notes that Dante worked on The Divine Comedy for twenty-five years and that it took John Milton fifteen years to write his great epic poem Paradise Lost. He also prints a letter he received from Margaret Mitchell’s brother about how long it took his sister to write her Civil War novel, Gone with the Wind. Her brother wrote: “The writing was intermittent during a period of ten years, for her family and personal life came first.”
What does it take to make this leap from an idea to its physical manifestation in the form of a book? Writing a great book is ultimately about capacity.
“Most people will agree that there has to be some natural talent. A strong urge for self-expression, the ability to recognize significant subject matter, a flair for language, and the capacity for long hours of hard work.” For some writers, my grandfather says, there is a “creative drive that is so strong that they cannot help themselves” (see Why Our Brains Tell Stories).
And even if you’re having a hard time, don’t give up, because sometimes, the best stories are the hardest to publish.
“Some very successful books, strangely enough, have had a hard time getting started,” he writes. “Publishers sometimes wish they had not refused a book when it turns out to be a wonderful success on the list of another publisher.” There are many contemporary examples, but he gives one example from his own time: Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, which was turned down so many times that Wolfe was about to give up. “On the eve of his departure for Europe, he turned the manuscript over to Madeleine Boyd, a literary agent, who in September 1928, sent it to Scribners. Their chief editor, Maxwell Perkins, recognized its extraordinary quality but told Wolfe that severe cutting and a vast amount of rearranging and rewriting would be necessary to turn the mammoth manuscript into a saleable volume. Wolfe agreed, and his collaboration with Perkins is one of the memorable cases of a fruitful author-editor relationship.”
A brief history of books: “The spoken word of today is the written word of tomorrow and the printed word of the day after tomorrow, one might say.”
My grandfather describes three main stages in the story of making books. First came the writing of books by hand, which lasted from around 3000 B.C. through the Middle Ages, to the time, five hundred years ago, when printing was invented. “Books came into being as a sort of insurance against the loss of memory,” he writes. “There was a time at the dawn of civilization when it was possible for the elders of the community to know by heart everything worth remembering and to pass it on to the next generation. Gradually, the oral traditions grew too voluminous.”
Then came writing on vegetable fiber, cloth, and animal skin, and cutting inscriptions into stone. After that came the rolls of ancient Egypt, which were prepared as a burial gift for departing souls. “To make sure that one might be able to identify a roll without having to unwind it, a tag or label of vellum with the name of the author and his work was attached. In Roman times, this was called the titulus, hence our ‘title.’”
After the roll came the Codex, “a series of folded leaves protected by heavy wooden covers, the ancestry of the modern book,” he explains. “You could not open a roll at more than one place at a time; it was hard to find something in a hurry; back and forth reference was complicated and tedious.” So bookbinding evolved, although the manuscripts were still written and illustrated by monks in the medieval scriptoriums.
In the Middle Ages, books started to be printed by woodblock, and stories moved away from the religious to the worldly, he notes. “Romances of chivalry, the heroic deeds of medieval knights, performed in honor of their lady loves, the Arthurian legends, the poetry of the troubadours, or minnesingers, and descriptions of the more humble occupations of peasants in the changing seasons of the years.”
Next came the most important technological breakthrough, by a nobleman in Mainz, Germany, named Johannes Gutenberg. Gutenberg spent years toiling over an invention of movable metal type on a wooden printing press, and eventually, in 1455 in his small town, he first printed a forty-two-line Bible, which, as my grandfather put it, “marked the emergence of the art of printing from the experimental stage.”
This invention, which made possible the inexpensive distribution of books, was directly responsible for a period of tremendous cultural growth and education, what my grandfather calls “the perfect expression of the Renaissance.” “In five centuries of tremendous scientific discovery and technical progress, which had a profound effect upon the fate of the human race, and in ever-widening areas of communication, the printed book was able to render invaluable service to mankind,” he writes.
Book publishing expanded further during the machine age and Industrial Revolution. About modern printing, he observes that “tradition and revolution seem to govern its growth. Both the desire for change and the tendency to resist change can be noticed. Many great printers have been very progressive in their technical methods and at the same time very conservative in taste.”
I can only imagine what my grandfather would say about modern storytelling, the Internet, the new forms of distribution through digital devices, apps, and social media. I think he would cringe at the political polarization, the dissemination of false information, and especially the banning of books. But at the same time, he would probably love the creative freedom that technology allows for new modes of storytelling.
As we imagine where stories will go from here, it’s worth listening to another telling comment in The Life of the Book. “A power-driven machine is not necessarily superior to a tool in the hands of a skilled craftsman… Whenever the machine becomes mightier than the human being, whenever and wherever it happens that man loses control over the machine, there is a great danger. The souls and minds of human beings too can become unduly dominated by machines. Machines in themselves are neither good nor bad. It is the use we make of them which counts.”
The story of The Life of the Book reminded me of his final piece of wisdom: a good story can help you look into the future by showing you the past.
The most valuable service of the book lies in its permanency.
There is no timeline to tell your story.
Writing a great book is ultimately about capacity.
Don’t give up, because sometimes, the best stories are the hardest to publish.
Many great printers have been very progressive in their technical methods and at the same time very conservative in taste.
A power-driven machine is not necessarily superior to a tool in the hands of a skilled craftsman.