Title: The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human
Author: Johnathan Gottschall
Acquired: From the publisher for review as part of a tour with TLC Book Tours
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.
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