The personal histories included in All There Is are compelling and powerful. Some are joyous celebrations of love and companionship, while others are stoic accounts of tragedy and perseverance. Despite their differences, each narrative is characterized by an overpowering sense of authenticity. The stories recorded in All There Is were not shared for personal gain or publicity. Rather, they were collected through the efforts of StoryCorps, an oral history project that allows any willing volunteer to record his or her most precious memories and experiences. The participants share the most essential aspects of their lives in interviews that are recorded for their personal archives and, in many cases, for the American Folklife Center.
Since its debut in 2003, the StoryCorps project has spread across the United States, recording over 40,000 interviews. As Dave Isay, StoryCorps’ founder, states, “StoryCorps’ mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives. With a relentless focus on recording the stories of people who are often excluded from the historical record, StoryCorps captures lives that would otherwise be lost to history and reminds the nation that every story matters and every voice counts.”
The democratic ideals embedded in StoryCorps are also reflected in the inclusiveness of All There Is and StoryCorps’ other published volumes: Listening Is an Act of Love and Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps. In All There Is, Dave Isay has selected a diverse array of personal narratives that are unified by a singular theme: romantic love. The original 40-minute interviews were transcribed and then edited into inspiring vignettes. Initially, I worried that the process of translation required to convert oral histories into textual narratives would somehow deprive the stories of their resonance or power. Fortunately, my misgivings were unnecessary.
All There Is is divided into three sections: Found, Lost, and Found at Last. Within each segment, love assumes many forms and radically alters the lives of people from all walks of life. Superficial divisions such as age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status are consistently trumped by love’s transcendent potential.
In Found, most of the stories are happy accounts of falling in love, taking a risk, and spending one’s life in perpetual union with another. Lost, on the other hand, explores love’s complications and the tragic circumstances that wrench people away from one another. These accounts are difficult to read, but bitterness is markedly absent as the living utilize storytelling to temporarily resurrect the dead or lost. In Found at Last, couples recount the unexpected events which brought them together against all odds. Almost every narrative included in this section revolves around a compelling mixture of surprise, gratitude, and genuine appreciation.
On one level, All There Is is an enjoyable read because it features spellbinding portraits of the most essential components of the human experience. On another level, however, these stories reiterate the importance of oral history. One of StoryCorps’ primary objectives is to record narratives that are more ephemeral than most, such as those of Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s and other degenerative conditions. StoryCorps is also committed to preserving accounts that offer personal perspectives of major historical moments, such as September 11th.
The value of this project is clearly illuminated by Beverly Eckert’s story. Eckert’s narrative focuses on the last conversation she had with her husband, Sean Rooney, who was killed in the World Trade Center. After he realized he was trapped in the tower, he managed to call Eckert and talk with her until his last moment. She recalls that haunting conversation: “In the end, as the smoke got thicker, he just kept whispering, ‘I love you,’ over and over. I was pressing the phone to my ear as hard as I could. I wanted to crawl through the phone lines to him to hold him one last time. Then I suddenly heard this loud explosion through the phone…” Eckert’s description is incredibly intense and heartbreaking, and without StoryCorps it could have easily been lost. Beverly Eckert was among the passengers who died when Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed outside of Buffalo in 2009.
All There Is is a collective tribute to the source of our greatest ecstasy and deepest despair: romantic love. It is also a wonderful introduction to the StoryCorps project’s honorable mission.