Heard any good stories lately?

My daughter has a terrible time settling down for the night, so about a year and a half ago when she randomly asked me to tell her a story, I very lamely told her, “You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.”  (That’s the opening text to Colossal Cave Adventure, the classic 1970s computer game.)

When I was calling roll on the first day of classes one term and saw the surname “Gearhart,” I blurted out in class, “That would be the perfect name for the hero of a steampunk adventure!”

Soon, my interactive bedtime stories were featuring the adventures of the crew of an æther-powered blimpship (with Captain Rod Gearhart, his first officer Cam Hammer, and Engineer Crankshaft, Crewman Swashplate, the still-nameless Mayor of the Moon, who are all essentially NPCs in a story that involves about five or ten minutes of “plot time” every night, leading up to “interactive time” where my kids take on the roles of characters they have developed, making suggestions as I play the role of the dungeon master (occasionally invalidating their actions, such as when my daughter claimed that her robot character could deploy jet boosters, and always trying to end on a cliffhanger).

An recurring story involves the attempts of the diabolical but gentlemanly Count Catastrophe to lure Smart Carolyn from the Moon to join forces with him, so that he can have on his side a precocious child who instantly notices the glaringly obvious flaws in the adults’ plans.

My son prefers plots centering around technology and adventure, but my daughter prefers plots that focus on moral issues, with children facing the consequences of listening to their temptation rather than their conscience.  I might have Count Catastrophe pull up alongside Smart Carolyn as she is walking on the moon, open the door to his shuttlecraft, and try to tempt her to get inside by saying her mother told him to pick her up, or that he saw a wounded baby ætherbeast who needs her help.  Recently, after my daughter had some difficulty with sharing, I had one of her characters fall asleep and dream that she had a single crumb of food, and tiny ant asked her to share the crumb, saying “If you give me half of your crumb, I will walk all the way back to the moonbase and get help for you.  If you eat all of the crumb, you will still be hungry, I will die, and I won’t be able to help you.” (Who says she’s too young for game theory?)

I tell these stories with the lights out, and sometimes I really get into them. The kids do, too.

Carolyn wept openly when I had anætherbeast die, or when I had Captain Gearhart transferred off of his blimpship, or when various characters get temporarily banished for bad behavior (which just happens to resemble the bad behavior that she herself has exhibited earlier in the day).  For months, I’ve been cultivating a plot that has most of the officers convinced that ætherbeasts (sort of like dragons that fly in space) are dangerous, but the set of characters that my kids identify with the most are all sympathetic to the æther convinced that the creatures are sympathetic (calling them “æther creatures,” not “ætherbeasts”).

When my son had one of his characters try to sabotage a mission to attack the æther creatures, I had that character get caught and get cashiered from the Royal Blimpship Navy, and had the local ætherbeast population launch a devastating attack on the moonbase (which had been one of the major settings for the stories).  When my son tried to take back his character’s sabotage, I told him that he needed to learn to live with the consequences of his actions. I don’t want the moral choices in the story to be easy or obvious.

I started telling these stories while recovering from the pneumonia that wiped me out for about two months in the fall of 2007.  That term, I was teaching Jane Eyre, which I hadn’t read since I was an undergraduate.  For several days, I went through feverish phases where I was completely incoherent, and lucid phases where I was weak but could concentrate reasonably well for maybe a couple of hours.  During one of those lucid phases, I downloaded a Project Gutenberg copy of Jane Eyre, and converted it into an MP3 with the text-to-speech program TextAloud.   As an undergraduate, I had skimmed over great stretches of the book; listening to it made me focus on each chapter with the same level of detail.

I break the files up into chapters, the shortest of which takes only a
few minutes to read, while one chapter in The Grapes of Wrath clocked in at almost two hours.  I set my MP3 player to play one track at a time, so if I’m listening in bed and want another chapter, I just click the button. If I fall asleep, I know exactly where I left off.
There are, of course, times when I’d prefer to fall asleep with my own thoughts, but if I get insomnia, now I feel I can put it that time to good use.

I own copies of all the books that are still protected by copyright,
and I don’t plan to publish the MP3s of any of the copyrighted books.

It takes me about 5-10 minutes to prepare a plain vanilla text so that my text-to-speech program can produce the MP3s, and it takes a couple of hours for the computer to churn out the MP3s. Often at night I will set up a new text, and it’s ready for me to start listening to in the car the next morning.

The computer voice isn’t great, and of course it’s fairly monotonous, but I’m so used to that voice now that I don’t actually hear it anymore — I listen right through it, you might say.

Here’s a list of the books that I’ve listened to in the past year
or so, while commuting or in the grocery store or working on my lawn or folding the laundry or sitting in a waiting room. Most I have read before, and I chose to listen to them in order to de-familiarize myself with them, and try to capture a little of what my students might have felt, reading them for the first time:

  • Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
  • The Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)
  • The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
  • The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
  • Benito Cereno (Herman Mellville)
  • Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (Cory Doctorow)

Also, for my own pleasure and edification, I listened to these:

I really enjoyed the Mars books, and had long wanted to read them after I heard that they had inspired both astronomer Carl Sagan and author Ray Bradbury.  The first trilogy was excellent, and the later books introduced variations on the formula that were nearly as entertaining.  The number of times the hero is captured, sent to the pits beneath the city, where he happens to be chained up next to someone who can provide the very information he needs to help him advance his quest, makes for some predictable but still enjoyable adventures.

I have also used the text-to-speech software to listen to drafts of my own articles and conference presentations, some long reports I’ve prepared (such as the English Program Review, and a report for a parking subcommittee that I got invited to join because I cracked a joke about parking during a faculty senate meeting), and various academic articles, dissertations, and the source code for Colossal Cave Adventure.

Oh, and I shouldn’t leave out the Dodge Intrepid and the Pages of Time podcasts (I’ve been a fan of this series since the beginning, and am looking forward to the next adventures).