Human beings invest a lot of their waking hours in stories. This is nothing new; ancient cultures relied heavily on oral traditions long before other forms of communication were developed. Even now, whether we’re reading books, playing video games, watching television, or are lost in private daydreams, we’re constantly listening to or forming our own stories. But why? In his new book, The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall investigates the reasons why people are naturally programmed to tell stories.
At just under 200 pages long (not including the notes and bibliography), is a brisk read that tackles a big topic. Each chapter is about a different aspect of human nature as it relates to storytelling, and the overall argument is that people have evolved to tells stories largely out of biological necessity.
Take your daydreams, for instance. Sure, we sometimes check out and go off to la-la land just because. But more often than not, our daydreams involve problem solving. How many of you have, say, got into an argument with a friend or colleague, and then replayed that scenario in your head ad nauseum thinking of all the things you could have said differently? These “stories” serve a purpose, allowing you to work through different scenarios and process the different possible outcomes; maybe next time, you’ll be better prepared if something similar occurs.
Since his topic is about storytelling, naturally there are a lot of stories included to illustrate his points. I loved the first exercise he presents in the first chapter to show how impossible it is for people to keep their defenses up whenever a good story is involved. In fact, all of the chapters open with some type of story; sometimes it’s effective. Sometimes it’s not, but the way Gottschall incorporates his stories is always intriguing.
Unfortunately, that’s also part of my main issue with the book: at times, I feel it’s too heavy on “anecdata” (I personally could have done without a lot of the anedcotes relating to his children) and too lightweight on the science. At one point, for instance, he claims that violent stories (news, video games, movies, etc.) do indeed affect people negatively. But the average person has seen their share of “New Study Shows Violent [insert media here] Does/Doesn’t Affect People” headlines. Point is, the scientific evidence is complicated, contradictory, and far from conclusive, and the book glosses over all of this. Considering so much of his premise is based on human evolution, science should have played a more prominent role in the book.
That said, Gottschall’s is fascinating and gave me a lot to think about. He’s an engaging writer who challenges the reader to actively participate as he illustrates his points. It’s a fun little book to read.
The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human was released on April 10, 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. To find out more, you can watch the book trailer here or visit the author’s website. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.