Common Reading Author Moves Campus Community

Posted: November 8, 2010 in Arts and Culture, Profiles

Emily Pokorny

Dave Isay had his audience in tears during his presentation October 20.

Isay, the author of this year’s common reading book, Listening is an Act of Love, visited campus to share his experiences with the project he founded, StoryCorps.  Members of the Edgewood College community gathered to listen to Isay and ask him questions, as well as hear real recordings from the StoryCorps project.  One story in particular, the story of Danny and Annie Perasa, which is published in Listening is an Act of Love, touched the audience so much that many were moved to tears.

The StoryCorps project is the gathering of the stories of everyday individuals.  Two people go into a StoryCorps booth and participate in an interview with one another, which is then recorded on two CDs.  One goes home with the speakers, while the other goes to the American Folklore Center at the Library of Congress to become a part of the oral history of America.

On the Edge reporter Emily Pokorny sits down with author David Isay

Since Isay conceived of the project and launched it in October 2003, more than 35,000 interviews have been conducted by more than 70,000 individuals.

A couple hours before his presentation, Isay sat down to discuss the project and his hopes for the Edgewood community after reading the book and hearing him speak.  This interview was surely one of the countless number he has given in his lifetime; before StoryCorps, he was already well-known for his in-depth radio documentaries.  As one of the introductory pages of Listening is an Act of Love notes, “his radio documentary work has won nearly every award in broadcasting.”

After a quick snack of a couple almonds, Isay eagerly gave of his time to share how StoryCorps has affected him.  The most outward sign of how the project changed his life was his change of careers.  Shortly after StoryCorps began, he “saw the power of the project” and promptly retired from making radio documentaries, even though he enjoyed the work.  He said that the project “confirmed a lot of the beliefs” he had before, “but wasn’t sure about.”  Those beliefs being “how important it is for people to feel like they’re heard” and that “the microphone gives you the license to have conversations that you don’t normally get to have, and that those conversations are very important.”

Listening to so many strangers share their stories is quite the accomplishment for someone who readily admits that he has “a very short attention span.”  Isay said that the fact that StoryCorps, “a very simple idea,” continues to keep his interest and surprises him.  “Everyday is a surprise with StoryCorps,” he said with a chuckle, as if this could be the project’s new tagline.

The fact that the project still surprises its creator seven years later speaks to the power of the stories of the seemingly ordinary people that step into the StoryCorps booths to record their voices and experiences for future generations.  “The stories continue to be so good.  The story’s just never stop, and they’re always surprising me,” Isay said.

When asked if he has a favorite story from Listening is an Act of Love, Isay immediately replied, “No.”  To him, each story is equally important, but he said some never fail to entertain.  Before he came to speak at Edgewood, Isay searched for stories from Wisconsinites and he said that those are now his current favorites.  “One is a grandfather–I was just blown away when I heard this–it’s a grandfather interviewed by his granddaughter.  The grandfather grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, left the farm, and married a woman he fell in love with.  It’s about his romance with his wife of 60 years, and I guess she had just died before this interview.  It’s very poetic and beautiful,” he said.

Isay played the story for his Edgewood College audience, as well as the amusing story of a Wisconsin man who traveled to New Hampshire in search of the illusive J.D. Salinger.

If Isay had the chance to interview one person, alive or dead, in a StoryCorps booth, he “would have no interest in interviewing a celebrity.”  With his project, Isay stresses the idea that people around us have stories as interesting as or even more interesting than the celebrity news that surrounds us.

Isay’s choice would be of his great-aunt Cecile.  He said, “I would probably honor her and ask her about her life because she was an incredibly wonderful woman.  She died 30 years ago.  My great-aunt Cecile was really an angel in my life.”

Isay wants the college community to think about his message of the importance of stories around us.  He suggests that “spending a little more time listening to parents and neighbors and friends, people who are our heroes, our own heroes, and making sure they now how much they matter to us by listing to their stories.  That wold be a good thing.”


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