Telling the American Story

30 Oct 2021 02:15 - 09 Dec 2022 08:30
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    • This is a sociolinguistic study of people's self-narration. I can't say I've absorbed the details, but I remember encountering it and being hit hard by the realization that these personal stories exist and can be studied, and they constitute some component of our real self and mind, despite being essentially fictional. I suppose this is a commonplace today.
    • The title is a bit of a pun, because it is both about specific, everyday stories told by Americans, and The American Story as a thing in itself, that is, the cultural narrative structure common to all Americans.
    • More specifically, the book first tells a meta-story from the author's own experience. She took some kind of academic position in the Netherlands and was surprised by several awkward conversations she'd have with her hosts. They would ask her, by way of small talk, why she was there, a visitor in a foreign land.
    • She'd respond with what seemed to her perfectly honest and ordinary reason – she had a career opportunity, and wanted to travel – but the Dutch would simply not accept this as an explanation. It seemed too crass, not the kind of thing a good person would say about themselves. Only a terrible grind would yank themselves away from their friends and family for something as unimportant as work, and if they did, they would at least be ashamed about it.
    • The point of this was not "the Dutch don't think work is important", but that they have rules for discourse that are quite different from those of Americans; different standards about what counts as good behavior, good motivations, and a good story.
    • It's not that big a revelation that the character of the self might vary widely from culture to culture; but the idea that these differences manifest in everyday narrative is kind of cool; because while character and the qualities of the soul are hard to observe, stories are right out there.