The Resurgence of Oral Storytelling: the Audio Book



Cows pasturing in Arth, Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Griot. Raconteur. Bard. Jongleur. Seanchai. Skop. Troubadors and minstrals. Spinner of yarns. Any way you call them they are storytellers. And storytellers have shaped our societies and reflected our cultures for all of recorded history, and before—from the time of cave paintings, songs and campfires.

Because oral storytelling is told through memory it spreads with a fluid and dynamic quality whose effect is alive, immediate and visceral.

Being Romanian Helped…

When I was a young girl, I wanted to be an actress. I enjoyed telling stories to my brother and sister. My sister and I shared a bazillion adventure stories (most of them twisted and funny) about two twin brothers and sisters who solved mysteries in outer space. Because our cast and stories were epic, we dispensed with the limitations of set (not enough dolls and stuffed animals) and went straight into the oral storytelling tradition: we liberated ourselves and shared our stories anywhere and anytime we chose. While I never did participate in theatre or drama in school, I did cultivate the art of oral storytelling. An art I may have come by quite honestly as a Romanian. Romanians are consummate storytellers; the country is brim with imaginative and compelling folktales, myth and supernatural phenomena.

Romanian oral epic includes a large body of heroic songs, fantastic and mythological songs, haiduc songs (on the exploits of heroic social outlaws), and balladic narrative songs of a more lyric nature.

When my son was growing up, I used to read him stories at bedtime. It was a time of incredible bonding: sharing stories and laughter. I did all the voices and sound effects. It didn’t stop there; soon I was making up scenarios all my own with a cast of hundreds and my son leapt in with both feet. It was like when I was younger, creating stories with my sister. My son and I created worlds peopled by fantastic characters; there was “little girl” (me) and there was Baby Poopy and Baby Bang Bang (him) and a host of others. My son played some parts (usually the rational ones) and I played others (usually the silly ones). Using Leggo, we even created a whole new twisted StarWars universe where Luke Skywalker had a falsetto voice and Darth Vader had given up his evil ways and turned into an old grumpy hermit with a flatulence problem, growing beans in his garden. There were no boundaries to our imaginative play.

The Age of Oral Storytelling

Oral storytelling is an ancient tradition and the most personal and intimate form of storytelling. The storyteller and the listeners are physically close and, through the story connection, psychically close. Storytellers bring their own personality and character to the story; they ultimately reveal and share themselves through their telling and the listeners reveal and share themselves through their reception of the story. The intimacy and connection is deepened by the flexibility of oral storytelling which allows the tale to be molded to each audience and location or environment where it’s being told. Listeners experience the immediacy of a creative process taking place in their presence and, even more than that, they experience the empowerment of being a part of that creative process (which is often interactive).

Early storytelling combined stories, poetry, music, and dance. Storytelling was natural for everyone but those who excelled at it became the entertainers, educators, cultural advisors and historians of their community. The history of a culture was handed down from generation to generation through its oral storytellers.

The 9th century fictional storyteller Scheherazade in “1001 Arabian Nights” saves herself from execution by telling tales. Centuries before Scheherazade the storyteller Vyasa at the beginning of the Indian epic Mahabharata says, “If you listen carefully, at the end you’ll be someone else.”

During the Middle Ages storytellers told their stories in market places and became honored members in royal courts. According to storyteller Ruth Sawyer, Medieval storytellers were expected to know all the current tales. They were expected to “repeat all the noteworthy theses from the universities, to be well informed on court scandal, to know the healing power of herbs and simples (medicines), to be able to compose verses to a lord or lady at a moment’s notice, and to play on at least two of the instruments then in favor at court.”

The Age of Audiobooks and iPhone

An audio book is a recording of the contents of a book read aloud. They have been around for over 70 years, but their popularity has swiftly grown to an all time high.

Ubiquitous mobile devices like iPods, iPhones have made audiobooks much more accessible and easy to download and portably listen to. Audiobooks are also valuable learning tools due to their format. They are convenient in multi-tasking scenarios.

Audiobooks on cassette or CD are typically more expensive than hardcovers because of the added expense of recording and the lack of the economy of scale in high “print” runs that are available in print book publishing. However, downloadable audiobooks cost less than hardcovers and can even be less than their paperback equivalents. Market penetration of audiobooks is still substantially lower than for their printed counterparts despite the high market penetration of the hardware (MP3 and WMA players) and despite the massive market penetration achieved by audio music products. But this is changing.

Downloadable audiobooks don’t carry mass production costs; they don’t require storage of a large inventory, physical packaging or transportation and even if “returned” don’t require a cost of physical return or destruction/disposal. Like the downloadable ebook, audiobooks are taking the storytelling industry by storm.

Amy Harmon of the New York Times recounts this scenario: “Jim Harris, a lifelong bookworm, cracked the covers of only four books last year. But he listened to 54, all unabridged. He listened to Harry Potter and “Moby-Dick, Don DeLillo and Stephen King. He listened in the car, eating lunch, doing the dishes, sitting in doctors’ offices and climbing the stairs at work.” Harmon recounts how 53 year old Mr. Harris, a computer programmer in Memphis, hadn’t read that much since he was in college. Of course, for some diehard literary types “listening” isn’t the same as “reading”.

Fortunately for Mr. Harris, the ranks of the reading purists are dwindling, says Harmon. “Fewer Americans are reading books than a decade ago, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, but almost a third more are listening to them on tapes, CD’s and iPods and iPhones.”

For a growing group of devoted listeners, the popularity of audio books is redefining the notion of reading, which for centuries has been centered on the written word. Audio books, says Harmon, have seduced members of a literate but busy crowd by allowing them to read while doing something else. “Digital audio that can be zapped onto an MP3 player is also luring converts. Audio books, which still represent only about 3 percent of all books sold, do not exactly herald a return to the Homeric tradition. But their growing popularity has sparked debate among readers, writers and cultural critics about the best way to consume literature.”

For me, the audiobook represents more. Audiobooks aren’t just another aspect of our convenient, fast-paced, multitasking culture. Audio books provide a different form of creative storytelling that is both refreshing and thoroughly engaging.

Of course, some books are better told this way than others and the storyteller’s role is paramount. Inflection, cadence, passion and voice all play a critical role in the oral narrative.

My Audiobooks

OuterDiverse-audiobook-IambikMy space detective adventure book “Outer Diverse” was originally released by Iambik Audiobooks as an audiobook, narrated by Dawn Harvey. It and its second “Inner Diverse” (and soon third book “Metaverse” of the Splintered Universe Trilogy) are now available on, through Amazon and on iTunes. And I am ecstatic! When I first listened to the proof, I was blown away. It was as though Dawn had created a whole new story, as though she’d breathed life into Rhea Hawke and the myriad of alien characters in Rhea’s universe. Dawn had applied cadence, inflection, joy and humor into each character and set. Remember how Orsen Wells created mass hysteria with his rendition of “War of the Worlds”?

Give the gift of pure joy with audiobooks.


Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books.

Writing in Sync

hirtle beachNS

Pebbles on Hirtle Beach, NS (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“At the heart of the universe is a steady, insistent beat: the sound of cycles in sync,” says Steven Strogatz in the opening to his compelling book, Sync: the emerging science of spontaneous order. He then describes how every night along the tidal rivers of Malaysia, thousands of fireflies congregate in the mangroves and flash in unison, without any leader or cue from the environment. “Even our bodies are symphonies of rhythm, kept alive by the relentless, coordinated firing of thousands of pacemaker cells in our hearts…almost as if nature has an eerie yearning for order,” adds Strogatz. The tendency to synchronize pervades the universe, from atoms to animals, and people to planets.

To be in sync is to intuitively connect (which is what spontaneous order is) and “know”…

Each of you has felt that “knowing”: that otherworldly, euphoric wave of resonating with something that is more than the visible world: when the hairs on the back of your neck tingle as you write that significant scene or trembling with giddy energy as you create that perfect line on a painting … or glowing with a deep abiding warmth when you defend a principle … or the surging frisson you share with fellow musicians on that exquisite set piece …

These are all what I call God moments. And they don’t happen by chasing after them; they sneak up on us when we’re not looking. They come to us when we focus outward and embrace our wonder for this world. When we quiet our minds and nurture our souls with beauty. It is then that what we had been seeking naturally comes to us. Like a gift.

It’s the blue pill to a new world of synchrony.

This teaches us above all else that we are all journeying together and part of something greater.

I want to share with you my own experience of synchronicity in art. When I’m working on a story, I find that events, opportunities, actions and resources directly germane to my project present themselves: watching an applicable movie that a friend chose for us to see; picking up a newspaper (which I seldom do) and reading a relevant article; looking for something on the internet and finding something totally different (ok; that happens to me all the time); a friend out of the blue introduces a pertinent topic, or someone you haven’t seen in a long time bumps into you with significant news. As though the universe was providing me with what I needed. Well, maybe it was! Of course, my mind was focused on anything to do with my current piece. It was as though I had donned a concentrating filter, one that would amplify relevant details. I’ll go further: I was unconsciously acting in a way that was bringing me more information relevant to my project. Ask and you shall receive.

Jake Kotze says it this way: “Synchronicity happens when we notice the bleed-through from one seemingly separate thing into another—or when we for a brief moment move beyond the mind’s divisions of the world.” Swiss psychologist Carl Jung introduced synchrony in the 1920s as “temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events.” The idea of seemingly unrelated events intersecting to produce meaningful patterns has spawned new notions of thought from the scientific study of spontaneous order in the universe (synchrony), to Synchromysticism — the discovery of convergent archetypal symbols in pop culture (e.g., books, music and film). Author Sibyl Hunter tells us that “Sync operates as an undercurrent of divine awareness personified through the myriad processes and symbols that make up the building blocks of our reality. Within that current, we spin our modern-day myths into books, fairy tales and movies, subconsciously retelling ourselves the same story over and over.”

As the myth builders of today, authors tap in to the synchronicity of ancient story, of resonating archetypes and metaphor and the “mythic journey”. To write in sync.

Joseph Campbell reminds us that, “Anyone writing a creative work knows that you yield yourself, and the book talks to you and builds itself … you become the carrier of something that is given to you from the Muses or God. What the shaman or seer [or artist] brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone.” It’s sync in action.


Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books.


Are You a Closet Synesthete?

StoneStairs-oakforest Rouge

Stairway leading to Rouge River Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“A person with synesthesia might hear and taste her husband’s voice as buttery golden brown, feel the flavor of food on her fingertips, sense the letter J as shimmering magenta or the number 5 as emerald green,” says the introduction to David Eagleman and Richard Cytowic’s 2009 book Wednesday Is Indigo Blue. The book explores the neuroscience and genetics behind the multi-sensory experience called synesthesia.

In a strange and compelling May 2008 article in Wired Magazine entitled “Poetry Comes from Our Tree-Climbing Ancestors”, Brandon Kelm asks where synesthesia comes from:

“Perhaps [synesthetes] are under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs…Or maybe they’re simply good with metaphors,” he suggests irreverently. Kelm is actually pretty close to the truth, according to neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, who stressed that “what appears as metaphor is a literal sensory experience for synesthetes.” This may explain why synesthesia is eight times more common among poets, artists, novelists and women than the general population. According to Eagleman and Cytowic, one in twenty people experiences synesthesia in a palpable form.

According to Ramachandran, synesthesia developed to help our ancestors climb trees. “Doing so requires a vision-informed mental map of the branches before us,” says Kelm, “as well as a touch-informed mental map of our limbs’ positions. Somehow these have to correlate. Which is quite a trick, when you think about it. Once early primates pulled off that feat of abstraction, it wasn’t long
– evolutionarily speaking — before we were drawing on cave walls and whispering sweet nothings and holding Shakespeare revivals,” Kelm adds pithily.

Synesthesia comes from syn, for together, and aisthêsis, for sensation or perception in Greek. People with synesthesia experience a blending of the senses (e.g., sight and hearing) or of characteristics in a sense modality (e.g., associating colors with written letters). According to Eagleman and Cytowic synesthesia occurs when “a triggering stimulus evokes the automatic, involuntary, affect-laden, and conscious perception of a physical or conceptual property that differs from that of the trigger.” Synesthesia can involve not only the union of two or more different sense modalities, but also different dimensions of perception, such as spatial extension, personality or gender.

Synesthetic Metaphor in Literature

According to Lakoff and Johnson, “[t]he essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another”. However, “… metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is, of mere words. … [O]n the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical” (emphasis in original).

We use synesthetic metaphors all the time, without thinking about it. Examples of cross-sensory (synesthetic) metaphors include: “loud shirt,” “bitter wind” or “prickly laugh”, “dark sounds”, and “sweet smells”. Many of these cross-sensory terms have been so often used to become cliché.

I first made intentional use of synesthesic metaphors in my space thriller trilogy The Splintered Universe. The main protagonist was the human galactic detective Rhea Hawke, who’d been tecked as a young girl with the ability to smell emotions. The premise opened up for me an entire suite of delicious possibilities to describe feelings and emotions through metaphoric imagery and cross-senses (another reason I so love the genre of science fiction).

In the following scene Rhea goes against her first rule of engagement and lets a man into her life:

“Rhea, stay with me, here,” Serge whispered into my hair with sudden excitement. “Move in. Stay.”

I smelled his enticing fragrance of strawberries and musk and knew what I wanted to say.

“I’ll think about it.”

In the next scene, Rhea challenges new boyfriend, Serge, whose past she knows nothing about and he responds:

His face flushed and he smiled carelessly. “I must have dreamt it,” he said, emitting a burst of confusing aromas, a complex mixture of sweet meadow flowers, fishy smell of a lake, and the musk of bog and cottonwoods.

In the scene below, having determined that Serge is not an innocent bystander but a calculating spy, Rhea chases him to haul him into the precinct:

Then I spotted Serge. He’d run to the far end of the room.

Upon hearing me enter, he’d turned and met my gaze head on.

“Rhea!” he shouted, obviously feigning delighted surprise.

I knew he’d recognized me earlier during my pursuit. I’d smelled his spike of excitement. Now I felt him emit yet another smell, a rather pleasant mixture of fermenting fruit and young wine, and felt a thrill surge through me in response. I didn’t show it and pointed my MEC steadily at his chest with my lips pursed in venomous resolution.

A hunting dog will eventually lose its life on the mountain—old Chinese proverb.”


The Unity of the Senses

Synesthesia is far more common in children than adults. It is also thought to occur universally in infants during their first few weeks of life, reflecting a brain that is still in the process of differentiating their combined sensory experiences.

Mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz once wrote that our sense perceptions are occult qualities, whose familiarity does little to clarify their essential nature.

Writer Oyang Teng tells us that “long before brain imaging technology showed that even basic perceptual acts involve many different areas of the brain, common observation (and common sense) showed that there is no strict autonomy of any of the senses; rather, they each exist as interconnected aspects in a continuum of perception.”

In his 1927 paper, “The Unity of the Senses” Erich von Hornbostel adds that, “looking more closely, the apparent exception becomes the rule, and one must search in order to find the private property of any one sense.”

Cedars hug fence-EloraGorge

Cedars hugging stone wall in Elora Gorge Park (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Cytowic and Eagleman argue that perception is already multisensory, though for most of us its multiple dimensions exist beyond the reach of consciousness. Reality, they point out, is more subjective than most people realize. Synesthesia is a window on the mind and brain; highlighting the amazing differences in the way people see the world. “The difference between synesthetic and nonsynesthetic brains is not whether cross talk exists” Cytowic and Eagleman note “but rather its degree.”

How about that tingly feeling you get when you hear music you like, or the fact that you salivate when you see salty food? Synesthesia.

If you’re interested in whether you have more synesthesic tendencies than the average person, go to Kelm’s May 2008 article on Wired Magazine and take the test. Then let me know…

P.S. The Wired Magazine article is not available on the Internet (I read it the old fashioned way: in print). But here is a site, The Frog Croaked Blue, that will give you similar questions to answer to determine whether you’re a synesthete. When I took the test recently, I was diagnosed as not being a synesthete but with good visual imagery and a rare trait that goes hand in hand with synesthesia.


Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books.