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Review: ‘The Storytelling Animal’ by Jonathan Gottschall

Review: ‘The Storytelling Animal’ by Jonathan Gottschall post image

Title: The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human
Author: Johnathan Gottschall
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2012
Acquired: From the publisher for review as part of a tour with TLC Book Tours
Rating: ★★★½☆

One Sentence Summary: Human beings love stories… but why?

One Sentence Review: The Storytelling Animal makes a solid case of the evolutionary necessity of fiction, but seems to smooth out some of the complexity of the science exploring storytelling.

Long Review: Human beings love to tell stories. Our history, religion, sports, commercials and entertainment all invoke elements of story to feed our imaginations. In The Storytelling Animal, literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall argues,

The human imperative to make and consume stories runs even more deeply than literature, dreams, and fantasy. We are soaked to the bone in the story.

But what is the purpose of telling stories? Why has the human brain evolved to love stories so much? And what does this love of story tell us about ourselves? These are the questions that Gottschall tries to answer using anecdotes and the most recent research in neuroscience, psychology and evolutionary biology to explore why humans evolved into “the storytelling animal.”

The Storytelling Animal is a pretty slim book — just about 200 pages, before the notes and bibliography — which means Gottschall tries to do a lot in very few pages. For the most part, his fast-paced look at the way we react to stories and the way stories impact our minds (and why we may have evolved to react that way) makes his argument clearly and conversationally. For long-time readers, his assertions that we empathize with fictional characters in a way that helps us understand and manage the challenges of real life will absolutely make sense (even if you don’t have a background in the science he covers).

But the book’s rapid-fire pace does have a downside. I think Gottschall has a tendency to simplify otherwise complex research and research findings to fit into his point. I don’t have enough of a scholarly background to make this argument for the entire book, but I have spent some time reading literature about the impact of violence in mass media (a topic Gottschall explores briefly while arguing that, in general, fiction has the ability to mold our minds). Although he says the research on the topic controversial (which it is), he goes on to suggest that consuming a lot of violent fiction will make us more violent. That’s a deep simplification of the research findings, which are far from absolute and don’t necessarily all come to that conclusion. It’s a small point in a chapter that explores some much bigger questions, but it made me think there are probably other moments where the book smooths out the rough edges of scientific questions (much like other popular science books seem to do).

The Storytelling Animal is a brief book trying to make a big argument. Although Gottschall does an admirable job of pulling an immense volume of research together and presenting it in an engaging and understandable way, I think serious nonfiction readers will want a little more than the book has to offer. But for casual nonfiction readers (or, perhaps, serious fiction readers), The Storytelling Animal is a readable justification for the evolutionary necessity of an addiction to fiction.

Upcoming Tour Stops: The Book Garden | Unabridged Chick | The Written World | Bibliophiliac | Peppermint PhD | Book Dilettante | Built by Story | cakes, tea and dreams | The Feminist Texican [Reads] | A Life Sustained | Peppermint Ph.D. |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Lorren May 15, 2012, 5:49 am

    While it looks like this book wasn’t your favorite, why stories are so important to the human mind is a question I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately, so I am interested to give this one a try.

    • Kim May 28, 2012, 1:42 pm

      You know, I think the critique is more that I was learning so much and enjoying the book so much that I wanted it to have little more — some of the things he seemed to skim over I would have happily read more about. I’m very curious about the topic, and I think the book was a good place to get started.

  • Jenna May 15, 2012, 7:19 am

    I think this is a major downfall of a lot of nonfiction lately. So much information is left out in an effort to (erroneously) make it more accessible/enjoyable for readers. Unfortunately, this always leaves me feeling unsatisfied and with more questions than when I started the book.

    • Kim May 28, 2012, 1:43 pm

      I guess it’s really a question of audience. I don’t mind books that are written for a general audience most of the time, but when it’s a topic I get excited about the book ends up feeling a little light. But I also think I needed the “light” book to perk my interest enough to read more.

  • Andi May 15, 2012, 11:38 am

    I’m wear of the “lot in a few pages” but nevertheless, this one is high on my want list.

  • Jenny May 15, 2012, 5:31 pm

    I often get worried about books that present a lot of complicated ideas in a condensed form. It’s not exactly that I suspect I’m being sold a bill of goods, but I do worry that I’m not being told important information.

    • Kim May 28, 2012, 1:44 pm

      That’s what I worry about too… what am I missing out on? But that mostly just makes me curious to read more, so it’s not the worst thing ever 🙂

  • Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours May 18, 2012, 6:07 pm

    Short books can be tricky – how much information is relevant to the point you are trying to make, and can you make it successfully in a small number of pages?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one for the tour Kim!

  • Patti Smith May 23, 2012, 9:32 am

    I almost felt like the discussion of violence and media and then in the following chapter on how fiction molds our minds were contradictory in some ways. I chalked it up to the complicated science involved though. This is one area where I will definitely be highlighting his sources and re-reading the research.

    • Kim May 28, 2012, 1:45 pm

      Yes, the science is very, very complicated. Anything that tries to look at cause/effect of media on behavior is pretty limited, which does seem to lead to contradictory conclusions.