Somewlibrhere lost in my house there’s a little book with scribblings from friends who stayed in our guestroom way back in the pre-parenthood days when my wife and I had time for things like guestbooks. Or overnight guests.
I haven’t seen it in years, but there’s one line in there that sticks with me.
It’s from a friend who — when it was just starting to be common for people to walk around with thousands of songs somehow crammed into a gadget in their pockets — picked up a pen to get in the last word of an argument that she I had been having: “The iPod is not black magic!”
I’m not sure.
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Of all the marvelous inventions in this world, none amazes me than our ability to tap into an endless stream of songs and stories from an army of professional entertainers.
I guess I have to believe that someone somewhere understands how gadgets let us do this, but it still feels like magic.
We have a much older magic that’s far more powerful, though. Over a few of the coldest nights of this rough winter I was reminded that it wakes when a kinsman’s voice fills a quiet refuge with a moving story.
“Beowulf” does the trick nicely.
For my friends who’ve forgotten their high school English classes, “Beowulf” is a long poem from at least a thousand years ago that our textbooks told us is important for some historical or literary reason that slips my mind.
But the only thing that’s important for this magic is that the poem lets us spend a few hours with tales about a young man who kills a monster, fights a horde of other monsters while he’s trying to slay the first monster’s mother, becomes king and then fights a dragon.
Between battles, our hero and his friends crowd into warm halls to fend off the winter with feasts and plenty of mead. I think that’s why I get an itch to dig out my copy of every time snow starts piling up outside, but I never end up actually doing it.
This winter, to my surprise, my younger son agreed that an ancient monster story sounded like a good way to pass a few evenings.
We were going to trade off reading, but the boy made me the sole narrator as soon as I jumped into the story with a shameless mess of a Scottish-Irish accent spiked with a little Swedish Chef.
I sounded ridiculous, but that shamelessness is essential. The old magic can’t withstand the pull of new technology if you’re not all in. And this time it managed to keep its hold against Netflix and streaming music for the three freezing nights it took for the story to play out.
It takes work these days to convince the family to turn off all the gadgets and make room for a night of reading aloud, but the fast grip that storytellers put on their audience shows that when we do this, we’re drinking in something we need.
I saw it in my older son when, as a newborn fresh from the hospital, he’d fall asleep in my arms while I read to him from “Dracula.” It didn’t matter that he couldn’t understand the story, only that there was a story for his dad’s voice to spin around him.
Eight years later, I saw it when that boy carried a book of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons to the couch and started reading aloud to his little brother, who put down his own book and looked over his shoulder to follow the action.
As I write this, the icy weather that sent me looking for my copy of “Beowulf” has retreated. But the paper says it’s about to charge back in.
And the little boy who was held in thrall by “Beowulf” a few days ago is already planning to try his own hand at the storyteller’s old magic, reading to me from a slim retelling of that same ancient poem that he picked up at the library this week to save for the next snowy day.
Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.