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The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human [Hardcover]

Jonathan Gottschall


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Book Description

April 10 2012 0547391404 978-0547391403
A NYTimes.com Editor's Choice   A Los Angeles Times Book Prizes Finalist   “A jaunty, insightful new book . . . [that] draws from disparate corners of history and science to celebrate our compulsion to storify everything around us.”
New York Times

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. Now 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 and explains how stories can change the world for the better. We know we are master shapers of story. The Storytelling Animal finally reveals how stories shape us.

“This is a quite wonderful book. It grips the reader with both stories and stories about the telling of stories, then pulls it all together to explain why storytelling is a fundamental human instinct.”
—Edward O. Wilson

“Charms with anecdotes and examples . . . we have not left nor should we ever leave Neverland.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer

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Review

"A lively pop-science overview of the reasons why we tell stories and why storytelling will endure..[Gottschall's] snapshots of the worlds of psychology, sleep research and virtual reality are larded with sharp anecdotes and jargon-free summaries of current research... Gottschall brings a light tough to knotty psychological matters, and he’s a fine storyteller himself."
Kirkus Reviews

"They say we spend multiple hours immersed in stories every day. Very few of us pause to wonder why. Gottschall lays bare this quirk of our species with deft touches, and he finds that our love of stories is its own story, and one of the grandest tales out there—the story of what it means to be human."
Sam Kean, author of The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

"Story is not the icing, it’s the cake! Gottschall eloquently tells you ‘how come’ in his well researched new book."
Peter Guber, CEO, Mandalay Entertainment and author of the #1 New York Times bestseller, Tell To Win

"This is a quite wonderful book. It grips the reader with both stories and stories about the telling of stories, then pulls it all together to explain why storytelling is a fundamental human instinct."
—Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor and Honorary Curator in Entomology, Harvard University

"The Storytelling Animal is a delight to read. It's boundlessly interesting, filled with great observations and clever insights about television, books, movies, videogames, dreams, children, madness, evolution, morality, love, and more. And it's beautifully written—fittingly enough, Gottschall is himself a skilled storyteller." — Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at Yale and author of How Pleasure Works

"Like the magnificent storytellers past and present who furnish him here with examples and inspiration, Jonathan Gottschall takes a timely and fascinating but possibly forbidding subject — the new brain science and what it can tell us about the human story-making impulse — and makes of it an extraordinary and absorbing intellectual narrative. The scrupulous synthesis of art and science here is masterful; the real-world stakes high; the rewards for the reader numerous, exhilarating, mind-expanding." — Terry Castle, Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, Stanford University

About the Author

Jonathan Gottschall teaches English at Washington & Jefferson College and is one of the leading figures in the movement toward a more scientific humanities. The author or editor of five scholarly books, Gottschall’s work has been prominently featured in the New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. Steven Pinker has called him "a brilliant young scholar" whose writing is "unfailingly clear, witty, and exciting."



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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  138 reviews
61 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Power of Storytelling . . . Excellent, Must-Read Feb. 24 2012
By Bradley Bevers - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
First, the short version: Excellent book on the power of story. Fascinating and insightful, a must read if you have any interest at all in the subject matter. One of the best books I have read in a long time . . . fresh, original, and enlightening.

Now the long version: The Storytelling Animal is a fascinating account of the power of story. The author has included many original anecdotes and drawn from hundreds of sources to create a compelling account of how stories make us human.

Each chapter covers a different aspect of this strange phenomenon, from dreams to memoirs to the future of storytelling.

* The Witchery of Story: This chapter is covers the power of story throughout history, geography, and our daily life. The quote that begins the chapter is one of my favorites:

"Lord! When you sell a man a book you don't sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night - there's all heaven and earth in a book, in a real book I mean." Christopher Morley, Parnassus on Wheels.

* The Riddle of Fiction: Why do we need story? What drives us, what sense does it make? While I did not agree with everything the author concludes here, the theories he presents are insightful. The account he gives of children and the pretend play they engage in is well worth reading, one of my favorite parts of the book.
Hell Is Story-Friendly: Why do we crave stories with trouble in them?

"Stories the world over are almost always about people (or personified animals) with problems. the people want something badly - to survive, to win the girl or the boy, to find a lost child. But big obstacles loom between the protagonists and what they want. Just about any story - comic, tragic, romantic - is about a protagonist's efforts to secure, usually at some cost, what he or she desire." (52)

* Night Story: Our brain does not stop telling stories, even while we are asleep.

* The Mind Is A Storyteller: Great chapter, really like the anecdote about James Tilly Matthews. Have added Illustrations of Madness and The Air Loom Gang to my wish list.

* The Moral Of The Story: The weakest chapter in the book. The author covers religion here and theorizes that humans invented religion as a means of advancing culture and fostering community. Does not really address the chapter title of where morals come from if this is true, why it could not be the other way around (we crave stories because some religion is true), etc.

* Ink People Change The World: Very good chapter - bottom line, fiction is powerful. Fiction can, and does, change more minds and influence more people than non-fiction. Story can break down our defenses and help us to empathize with and accept others (ex. Uncle Tom's Cabin).

* Life Stories: My favorite chapter in the book, worth buying and reading for just this chapter and the next. Memoirs can't be trusted, we fictionalize much of our own memory, and story is a central part of our past.

* The Future of Story:

"These are undeniably nervous times for people who make a living through story. the publishing, film, and television businesses are going through a period of painful change. but the essence of story is not changing. The technology of storytelling has evolved from oral tales, to clay tablets, to hand-lettered manuscripts, to printed books, to movies, televisions, Kindles, and iPhones. The wreaks havoc on business models, but it doesn't fundamentally change story. Fiction is as it was and ever will be: Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication" (186)

In summary, this is an excellent book and well worth your money. I approach story from a different starting point than the author as a Christian, but there is still much to learn. C.S. Lewis talks about Christianity being more like math than a religion . . . underlying the fabric of our universe. The fact is that story pervades reality and the lives of humans. I'll end with the quote that the author uses to start the book:

"God made Man, because He loves stories." Elie Wiesel, The Gates Of The Forest
35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Left wanting more... March 15 2012
By J. Prather - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
The Storytelling Animal was a fun read, but not the must read I was hoping for. I didn't find anything surprising, or experience any of those WOW moments, when the author brings forth an insight that I had never considered. What I did find interesting was how the author brought all of the different forms of story together. He presents a comprehensive picture of how story permeates every aspect of our lives, and does it in a way that is very readable.

I was familiar with much of the evidence presented in the section of the book dealing with the importance of story in child development. It was an effective presentation, but I was hard pressed to find any new conclusions to draw either from the studies cited or the anecdotal evidence provided.

Perhaps my favorite parts of the book were the ones dealing with our own personal narratives. Our eternal quest to make ourselves the protagonist in our own story, and the unreliability of memory made for interesting reading. Looking at these aspects as merely different forms of storytelling was intriguing and I wanted more information. Unfortunately, not enough was provided.

This was a well written, quick read that will whet the appetite of fiction lovers such as myself, but in the end was kind of insubstantial. I was hoping for something to challenge the common conceptions, and instead experienced a gentle reinforcement of quite a few things I already knew.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book April 19 2012
By Artem - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A nonfiction book about story and its structure that artfully follows the structure of fiction. Gottschall writes with the authority and smarts of the best nonfiction writers and with the art and command of the best fiction writers. Gottschall's book is far and away my favourite book of the year and I look forward with anticipation to his next undertaking.

"The human mind was shaped for story, so that it could be shaped by story." Gottschall writes, as he subtly tells the reader what he is doing to us, "literally" shaping us with his story and letting us all in on the secrets of all storytelling animals.

The science is fascinating and the topics are well researched. I particularly liked the studies on mirror neurons and how it applied to our love of story.

I wish that I had a book like this in my English classes growing up. A book that made me examine myself as a reader/storytelling animal(something that was long overdue), so that I could better examine what I read.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Most intellectually fertile book I've read in years Jan. 26 2013
By Robert Bidinotto - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
As both a nonfiction author and a bestselling novelist, I've pondered certain puzzles for decades.

Why do people find certain ideologies and philosophies appealing, but not others? Why do we so often hold to our points of view dogmatically, intractable to all facts, reason, and logic? What is the source of dreams? Why do certain common myths seem to be indelible and universal, across cultures and throughout history? Why does music conjure in us mental imagery? What is the key to the kind of motivational commitment that impels some people to face and triumph over incredible odds and obstacles? Why do we find certain people, at first glance, overpoweringly attractive, and others repulsive? Why do we love some books and movies, and hate others?

These and many other mysteries of the human mind and personality are central to the concerns of the artist, psychologist, historian, or person plying any field of communication or persuasion. But is there anything that links together all of these seemingly disparate things?

In this brilliant and engrossing book, Jonathan Gottschall reveals the central, essential, and seminal role played by STORY -- or "Narrative" -- in human thought, action, and culture. Moving with seemingly effortless creative ease from riveting personal anecdotes to abstract sociological theories, from baffling historical phenomena to intriguing psychological experiments, Gottschall offers a key to understanding much that has baffled man throughout the ages.

For decades, I had believed that philosophical ideas and ideologies reigned supreme in the culture; but over time, events and experience began to collide with that assumption. I first became interested in the extraordinary power of Narratives when reading the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell. Aspiring to write fiction, I became fascinated by how timeless myths found their way into fiction and film; building upon Campbell, "script doctor" Christopher Vogler even uses mythological archetypes to help craft hugely popular movies, and -- in his book The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers -- to school authors in the craft of fiction-writing. Later, while researching a book project about the roots of the modern environmentalist movement, I also came to realize how certain ancient mythic storylines served as the basis for modern ideologies and major religions. (Gottschall demonstrates this latter truth with his sobering account of the career of Adolph Hitler, who was inspired and guided decisively by the heroic operatic dramas of composer Richard Wagner.)

THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL touches upon all of this, and much, much more, drawing the kinds of interdisciplinary and personal connections that most of us would never make in a hundred years. Yet even so, I think Gottschall has barely scratched the surface of the far-flung implications of narratives and stories in our lives. To take just one example, I believe our current president has understood intuitively, and for years, the power of crafting a compelling "personal narrative" in order to launch and propel his political career to wildly improbable success -- and how he relied on crafting a similar "morality play" about himself and his opponents in order to win re-election in 2012. But that is just one of the important implications to be drawn from this extraordinary work.

Let me add that Gottschall is himself a wonderful writer and storyteller. A book that could have been an imposing intellectual chore and bore never flags for a moment in holding the reader and keeping him turning pages. So as not to distract or interrupt his own narrative, he sequesters a formidable array of endnotes and a vast bibliography unobtrusively, after the text.

I love books like this -- books that upend my previous understanding, books that augment my grasp of the world. For all these reasons, I can't recommend THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL strongly enough. A joy to read and ponder, it's the most intellectually fertile nonfiction work I've read in years.

--Robert Bidinotto, author, "HUNTER"
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Uneven in Terms of Reading Enjoyment Aug. 16 2012
By C. E. Selby - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Much of this 200 page book I found interesting and, in some cases, fascinating. However, there were parts where I simply lost interest, thinking that Jonathan Gottschall didn't need to go into as much detail. I also found the photographs annoying in places. They are poorly done, even iconic ones, and often there on a page without comment. There is another issue I have will I will address later.
For me the book confirms what I have long suspected: all of us live much of our lives in the land of fantasy but we seldom talk about it, probably believing that others will think one is crazy to admit that truth. But I readily admit it. I go to sleep telling stories. When I walk I tell stories. We all tell stories when we are engaged in sex. And don't deny it!
The opening chapter, "The Witchery of Story" is a great way to get started into this book. That may sound like a rather obvious thing to write, but in this case it is especially true. We don't want to live the lives of those who inhabit the pages of stories do we? But fiction would not sell if it told of our ordinary lives. Right? The author sets this up well.
I think "The Riddle of Fiction," the second chapter is excellent with one very important exception. The author makes an assumption which apparently Vivian Paley, the author of "Boys and Girls" also made in her so-called research: that all boys gravitate toward play that involves guns and the like whereas all girls gravitate toward dolls, etc. That is just so not so! And I, as a gay man, ought to know. Maybe he meant to say--but he didn't--that a majority do. But I sought any opportunities I could to play with my sister's dolls, leaving my toy guns to gather dust. And I know of many lesbians who had little use for dolls but a lot of use for the activities straight boys were involved in. Today one would think an author would take this into consideration. Dr. Paley's research is old. But quite clearly the author is writing only from a heterosexual's point of view. So off went one star because of that! So there!
I teach writing and literature. So I found "The Mind Is a Storyteller," the fourth chapter, really fascinating, that a majority of authors are probably bipolar. That must be why my writing isn't as good as I would want it to be. I am no bipolar. But when I read the chapter, I put the pieces together along with the drug addiction and alcoholism we associate with so many of these writers: Capote, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Coleridge, Virginia Wolfe... A seemingly endless list. This sentence fascinates me: "Even college students who sign up for poetry-writing seminars have more bipolar traits than college students generally." There is no footnote for one to use to go to the author's souce, another flaw in the book in my opinion. And this: "People who are mentally ill tend to ahve more artists in their families...." Again no attribution to this statement although there is an extensive bibliography at the end.
I really enjoyed the last chapters: "The Moral of the Story," "Ink People Change the World," "Life Stories" and "The Future of Story." Indeed we do experience a lot of story telling today by a lot more people. That alone is fascinating given how our reading population is significantly less per capita than in the past. But not our media savy population who seek out all types of stories.
Chapter 6, "The Moral of the Story" isn't want you might expect, not about Aesop-type stories but instead about religions and their stories. Let me give you an example (page 119): "Guided by the holy myths, believers must imaginatively construct an alternate reality that stretches from the origins straight through an entire shadow world that teems with evidence of divinity. They must be able to decode the cryptic messages in the stars, the whistle of the wind, the entrails of goats, and the riddles of the prophets... Religion is the ultimate expression of story's dominion over our minds. The heros of sacred fiction do not respect the barrier between the pretend and the real." Then this two pages later: "We have religion because, by nature, we abhor explanatory vacuums. In sacred fiction, we find the master confabulations of the storytelling mind." Amen to that! And, of course, as the author then writes, the same is true of national myths. Just think about all the fictions of American history, the George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and not lying types of fictions. And then all of the virtues rewarded types of stories we have created. Humans just love to tell stories, often making claims about them being factual, all directed toward improving human behavior. But what is lacking in this chapter is how so many of these fictions have been the roots of wars.
Yes, I am convinced that I am right: much of our day and night is consumed in the stories we play out in our heads. Too bad we don't admit it and enjoy telling those tales, including the ones about the neighbor we would just love to see run down by a monster truck! And don't tell me all of us don't create those types of stories. All the time.

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