S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
A knowledge of the success which stories will have when they are attended with a turn of surprise, as it has happily made the characters of some, so has it also been the ruin of the characters of others. There is a set of men who outrage truth, instead of affecting us with a manner of telling it; who overleap the line of probability that they may be seen to move out of the common road; and endeavour only to make their hearers stare by imposing upon them with a kind of nonsense against the philosophy of nature, or such a heap of wonders told upon their own knowledge as it is not likely one man should have ever met with.
I shall close this paper with a remark upon such as are egotists in conversation: these are generally the vain or shallow part of mankind, people being naturally full of themselves when they have nothing else in them. There is one kind of egotists which is very common in the world, though I do not remember that any writer has taken notice of them: I mean those empty conceited fellows who repeat, as sayings of their own or some of their particular friends, several jests which were made before they were born, and which every one who has conversed in the world has heard a hundred times over.
Avoid stories, unless short, pointed, and quite apropos. He who deals in them, says Swift, must either have a very large stock, or a good memory, or must often change his company. Some have a set of them hung together like onions: they take possession of the conversation by an early introduction of one; and then you must have the whole rope, and there is an end of everything else, perhaps, for that meeting, though you may have heard all twenty times before.
Tis a great imperfection, and what I have observed in several of my intimate friends, who, as their memories supply them with a present and entire review of things, derive their narratives from so remote a fountain, and crowd them with so many important circumstances, that though the story be good in itself, they make a shift to spoil it; and if otherwise, you are either to curse the strength of their memory, or the weakness of their judgment . But above all, old men, who yet retain the memory of things past, and forget how often they have told them, are the most dangerous company for this fault; and I have known stories from the mouth of a man of very great quality, otherwise very pleasant in themselves, becoming very troublesome by being a hundred times repeated over and over again.
Michel de Montaigne: Essays, Cottons 3d ed., ch. ix.
I could not but reflect with myself, as I was going out, upon the talkative humour of old men, and the little figure which that part of life makes in one who cannot employ his natural propensity in discourses which would make him venerable. I must own, it makes me very melancholy in company, when I hear a young man begin a story; and have often observed that one of a quarter of an hour long in a man of five-and-twenty, gathers circumstances every time he tells it, until it grows into a long Canterbury tale of two hours by that time he is threescore.
But it is not only public places of resort, but private clubs, and conversations over a bottle, that are infested with this loquacious kind of animal, especially with that species which I comprehend under the name of a story-teller. I would earnestly desire these gentlemen to consider that no point of wit or mirth at the end of a story can atone for the half-hour that has been lost before they come at it. I would likewise lay it home to their serious consideration, whether they think that every man in the company has not a right to speak as well as themselves? and whether they do not think they are invading another mans property when they engross the time which should be divided equally amongst the company to their own private use?
What makes this evil the much greater in conversation is, that these humdrum companions seldom endeavour to wind up their narrations into a point of mirth or instruction, which might make some amends for the tediousness of them; but think they have a right to tell anything that has happened within their memory. They look upon matter of fact to be a sufficient foundation for a story, and give us a long account of things, not because they are entertaining or surprising, but because they are true.
Methusalem might be half an hour in telling what oclock it was; but as for us post-diluvians, we ought to do everything in haste; and in our speeches, as well as actions, remember that our time is short. A man that talks for a quarter of an hour together in company, if I meet him frequently, takes up a great part of my span. A quarter of an hour may be reckoned the eight-and-fortieth part of a day, a day the three hundred and sixtieth part of a year, and a year the threescore and tenth part of life. By this moral arithmetic, supposing a man to be in the talking world one-third part of the day, whoever gives another a quarter of an hours hearing makes him a sacrifice of more than the four hundred thousandth part of his conversable life.
Story-telling is subject to two unavoidable defects,frequent repetition and being soon exhausted; so that whoever values this gift in himself has need of a good memory, and ought frequently to shift his company.