Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gottschall

I can't remember if it was my son or I who saw a precis of The Storytelling Animal, but we exchanged some email about the ideas described in the digest, and I decided to read the book (actually, I listened to it, which may have been a mistake in this instance--but I'm not going to read the print book to make sure). Unlike many of the reviewers who have raved about the book, I found it disappointing. Jonathan Gottschall draws on a variety of disciplines from literature, religion, and psychology to neurology, biology, and virtual reality, as well as  his own experience (perhaps more than he ought) to support his thesis. Essentially that thesis is that people alone among living creatures are immersed in story--telling, listening to, reading, watching, and living stories--because storytelling is an adaptive behavior that helps individuals rehearse social situations in which they may find themselves in the future. He also argues that stories encourage ethical behavior, that they influence both history and individual lives, and that, despite waning interest in reading fiction, story is in no danger of dying.

Some of the research Gottschall cites is interesting, and I enjoyed his description of memoirs (he calls them "truthy" rather than truth) and the ways in which we distort our own life stories as we construct narratives about ourselves. Similarly, the discussion of virtual reality as the future of storytelling was interesting, though I have no idea of whether he is correct. Overall, however,  his primary thesis was inadequately supported and his constant reassertion of the importance of story rapidly became tedious (luckily, the book is not too long).

Favorite passages:
Like Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence, authors trick readers into doing most of the imaginative work. Reading is often seen as a passive act: We lie back and let writers pipe joy into our minds. But this is wrong. When we experience a story, our minds are churning, working hard.

. . . a healthy mind tells itself flattering lies.

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