“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
People have been telling stories and listening to stories since humanity has existed. We’re moved by them, entertained by them, and often find meaning for life’s occurrences through them. Everywhere you look, you find stories. From the books we read, to the gossip people tell, to the movies and television shows we watch, to the news programs that fill us in on the world’s events, and finally to the world’s most famous and lasting religious texts, humanity is pulled toward story. Not only that, but people are often bound by a common story that defines them. This is especially true in the world’s religions. Each religion, or even no religion, has a story to tell about the world’s origins and what life is for. People are often united by the common story that defines their existence.
But why are people so drawn to stories? Jonathan Gottschall tries to tackle that question in his new book THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL. Drawing together findings from science and psychology, Gottschall shows how ingrained in us is the need for stories and storytelling. He shows how far-reaching story is to the world we live in, using examples such as a criminal trial being a “story contest.” Lawyers are trying to paint a story that convinces a jury of a person’s guilt or innocence. It’s not just presenting cold-hard facts, but weaving a tale that influences the way people think. Another example is the way journalism often communicates information in a story-like way.
So consumed by story are we that even when we sleep at night, our minds are relentlessly creating stories in our dreams. Gottschall also shows that storytelling is an inherent instinctual behavior. Children don’t have to be taught to pretend and live in the midst of story. They just do it. Even more interesting is the evidence that stories aren’t really an escapist activity. Stories involve trouble. In fact, most stories involve more trouble than people often experience in real life. Nobody wants trouble in real life, but it’s the thing we run to in our imaginations. Why do we do that?
Gottschall presents some ideas that stories may help people deal with problems in real life as a type of simulated practice. He also shows how stories serve to influence and shows how it seems that stories are meant to motivate us live better and behave better.
The book comes from the perspective of evolution with story as something that has helped humanity to evolve throughout history. I’m not an evolutionist, so I can’t appreciate everything about the book. What Gottschall calls evolutionary processes, I call divine intelligence, so there’s still an incredible amount to learn from the book. I did appreciate the discussion on religion in the book since my defining story is the one that God created the universe.
THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL is a great book for anyone, but I especially appreciated it as a writer and a storyteller because helps shape how I approach story and what I hope to accomplish in people’s lives through story. The only other disclaimer I have is that the book can get a little vulgar at times. Despite that, there’s much to learn from this book about the role of storytelling in our world.
I received this book for free for review from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt