Friday, April 27, 2012
Nonfiction: The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Date: April 10, 2012
Source: GoodReads First Look
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book in return for an honest review.)
Reading time: ten days (but only because I didn't have much time to read)
From GoodReads: Humans live in landscapes of make-believe. We spin fantasies. We devour novels, films, and plays. Even sporting events and criminal trials unfold as narratives. Yet the world of story has long remained an undiscovered and unmapped country. It’s easy to say that humans are “wired” for story, but why?
In this delightful and original book, Jonathan Gottschall offers the first unified theory of storytelling. He argues that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems—just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations. Storytelling has evolved, like other behaviors, to ensure our survival. Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology, Gottschall tells us what it means to be a storytelling animal. Did you know that the more absorbed you are in a story, the more it changes your behavior? That all children act out the same kinds of stories, whether they grow up in a slum or a suburb? That people who read more fiction are more empathetic? Of course, our story instinct has a darker side. It makes us vulnerable to conspiracy theories, advertisements, and narratives about ourselves that are more “truthy” than true. National myths can also be terribly dangerous: Hitler’s ambitions were partly fueled by a story. But as Gottschall shows in this remarkable book, stories can also change the world for the better. Most successful stories are moral—they teach us how to live, whether explicitly or implicitly, and bind us together around common values. We know we are master shapers of story. The Storytelling Animal finally reveals how stories shape us.
My review: This proved to be quite a delightful read. The subject material and arguments covered are certainly fascinating, and Gottschall, through his quotes and supporting evidence, is clearly well-read both in this subject and in a more general sense. I did not expect the heavy dependence upon psychology, but it was well-explained and actually provided a great supplement to the psychology course I am currently taking. The evolutionary biology approach to explaining the purpose(s) of storytelling was also particularly fascinating.
The one thing about which I could complain, which is actually more of a personal problem than one of the author's, is that there is not a concrete set of knowledge I took away from reading this book. Gottschall explores a variety of ideas about the reasons behind storytelling that stem from a variety of academic disciplines, so the book comes off as more of an eclectic, chapter-by-chapter compilation than a concrete setting-forth of a single man's unified ideas. It's quite fascinating, and Gottschall adds an appropriate amount of humor to keep things moving, but the reader comes away with more general knowledge and less specifics that can be concretely explained. Not by any means unpleasant, but not what I had expected. Also, I had mixed opinions about the images included with the text. Many did add to the material being covered, but I felt that some came off as unprofessional in the general outlay of text and pictures. However, maybe this will be remedied in the final copy of the book.
Overall, The Storytelling Animal is a fun but also very informative read. It is perfectly written for a general audience, containing little academic jargon but still perfectly conveying its messages. Even for people not usually interested in the fields covered, the mix of occasional humor, references to well-known things from history and the media, and Gottschall's clear writing make for an interesting read.