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The Storytelling Animal

ImageI just finished this really interesting book, The Storytelling Animal, written by Jonathan Gottschall, whose overarching question is this: why do humans tell stories?

I find this question intriguing, because:

  1. I’m addicted to the process of telling stories;
  2. I love books (no duh), and have loved to read for as long as I can remember;
  3. The fact that we are the storytelling animal is the reason why I have a job, and work for an organization that is perennially thriving (knock on wood);
  4. Part of my job is to argue tirelessly (and charmingly!) for the primacy of creative writing and literature in our culture, and not as a solipsistic cottage industry (yes, I’ve recently been to AWP, which can give you that feeling);
  5. For a long time in college I attempted to major in biology (Physics 101 did me in), and I’m still fascinated by the confluence of creativity and art, genetics and evolution.

Gotschall’s premise is this: the ability to tell and hear stories has helped homo sapiens inherit the earth. Our species has benefited from story in many ways.

As Gotschall says:

Story, in other words, continues to fulfill its ancient function of binding society by reinforcing a set of common values and strengthening the ties of common culture. Story enculturates the youth. It defines the people. It tells us what is laudable and what is contemptible. It subtly and constantly encourages us to be decent instead of decadent. Story is the grease and glue of society: by encouraging us to behave well, story reduces social friction while uniting people around common values. Story homogenizes us; it makes us one. This is part of what Marshall McLuhan had in mind with his idea of the global village. Technology has saturated widely dispersed people with the same media and made them into citizens of a village that spans the world.

Story—sacred and profane—is perhaps the main cohering force in human life. A society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals, and agendas. What connects us beyond our kinship ties? Story. As John Gardner puts it, fiction “is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.” Story is the counterforce to social disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart. Story is the center without which the rest cannot hold.

Without story, we couldn’t live together. We wouldn’t stay sane. We’d give in to entropy. Plus, we’d have nothing to do to pass the time on slow days, or in the airport, or sitting by the fire, or in dentist’s waiting room.

Now that’s a story I can believe in.


PS Here’s a video trailer for the book, if you’re interested.

2 comments on “The Storytelling Animal

  1. Page Lambert
    March 28, 2013

    Thanks for sharing this, Michael. Contributing editor to Poets & Writers Frank Bures had an interesting article on this too. You can read more about it in All Things Literary. All Things Natural. I think you and Andrea will appreciate what he learned about storytelling from his daughter.

  2. alison barker
    March 31, 2013

    Thank you for sharing this book. It resonates with David Rothman’s comments last night at The Story of a Book, when he talked about investing in literacy to “sell” books. Perhaps indirectly…but I see links to citizenship here.

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This entry was posted on March 28, 2013 by in Good Books, The Write Idea.

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