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Jonathan Gottschall: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Jonathan Gottschall teaches English at Washington and Jefferson College. He is the author of four books, including The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, published in April by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

If you can give us the nutshell version, what is it about stories (whether it be fiction, or drama, or televised sports, or dreams, or computer games) that makes us as humans so attracted to them, and gives them such a powerful hold over us?

Homo sapiens is this weird sort of primate that lives inside stories, and we don't know why for certain. I cover several competing ideas in the book, but they all break down into two big categories. 1) We like stories because they have hidden evolutionary benefits. 2) The mind isn't designed for story, it has a glitch that makes it vulnerable to story. In the latter view, fiction is like porn—a mere pleasure technology that we’ve invented to titillate the pleasure circuits of the brain. I argue that story addiction is mainly good for us: story is a whetstone for the mind, and it acts as a kind of social glue—helping to bind individuals together into functioning societies.

It was an experience with a song that prompted you to write this book, as you note in the opening pages. Tell us about that moment, and do you see significant differences in the way humans are affected by stories in different media (print, song, video, &c.), or does the impact tend to be similar?

One day, I was driving down the highway and happened to hear the country music artist Chuck Wicks singing "Stealing Cinderella"—a song about a little girl growing up to leave her father behind. Before I knew it, I was blind from tears, and I had to veer off on the road to get control of myself and to mourn the time—still more than a decade off—when my own little girls would fly the nest. I sat there on the side of the road feeling sheepish and wondering, "What just happened?" I wrote the book to try to answer that question. How can stories—the fake struggles of fake people—have such incredible power over us? Why are we storytelling animals?

And yes, different forms of storytelling affect us in different ways. Most popular songs are stories set to music, and they evoke powerful emotion. The same goes for films. People respond so intensely and authentically to film, that when psychologists want to study an emotion, like sadness, they subject people to clips from tear-jerkers like "Old Yeller" or "Love Story".

The Storytelling Animal draws on research from a wide range of fields (biology, psychology, neuroscience, and more) to explore the origins and role of story in human life. What are some of the lingering questions in this area that you think future scientific study might be able to answer?

By the time we die, we all spend more time in the story worlds of fiction, fantasy, and dreams than we do in the "real" world. So we need sharply focused scientific attention on how this shapes us individually and culturally. I’d also like to see scientists, scholars, and artists teaming up to try to answer that big "Why?" question about how we evolved as storytelling animals. This is one of the biggest mysteries in human life and we've only begun to explore it.

You write that "Religion is the ultimate expression of story's dominion over our minds." Do you see this as a net positive for humanity, or have the negative effects of religious stories outweighed the benefits?

This sounds wishy-washy, but it's really a mix. Stories are at the foundations of virtually all religious systems. Flip through the Bible and you are flipping through an anthology of really powerful stories. In 1869 the German evolutionist Gustav Jager called religion "a weapon in the Darwinian struggle for survival." As Jager's language suggests, this doesn’t make religion a good thing. There are good things about religion, including the way sacred stories bind people into more harmonious collectives. But there is an obvious dark side to religion too: the way it is so readily weaponized. Religion draws co-religionists together and drives those of different faiths apart.

Columnist Joel Stein recently had a short piece in the New York Times headlined "Adults Should Read Adult Books." What did you think of his argument, and more generally, what are your thoughts on the topic (adults reading books originally marketed as "young adult" titles")?

Joel Stein is paid to be a joker. I don't think he's taking himself too seriously here, and neither should we. Novels like David Copperfield and The Last of the Mohicans were written mainly for adults, but I thrilled to them as a boy. If Charlotte's Web is for kids, then why do I still find it so moving? Just because marketers shove Harry Potter stories into the "young adult" bin, doesn't mean there's nothing in them for grownups. The Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games series have been massively successful largely because of their massive cross-generational appeal.

As you note in the book, we're going through a period of hand-wringing for the "death of the novel," at the moment (witness the recent controversy over the failure to award a Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year). But you argue in The Storytelling Animal that we really don't have anything to worry about. How do you see fiction and story continuing to change and evolve in the future?

The technology of story changes—from oral tales, to clay tablets, to medieval codices, to printed books, to movie screens, iPads, and Kindles. But the stories themselves don't ever change. They have the same old obsessions. And those obsessions won't change until human nature does. But I think the most exciting new frontier in fiction is the interactive stories of video games. Video games project us into intense virtual reality simulations where we get to be the rock-jawed hero of an action film. The plot of the average video game—like the average action film—is usually a thin gruel (a guy, a gun, a girl). But we are on the cusp of something richer. I think we are living at the dawn of a new form of storytelling where the conventions are still being discovered and refined.

What were some of your favorite stories as a child? Do your daughters enjoy some of the same stories today?

I was a book freak even as a boy. I can remember reading a lot of Classics Illustrated (like Moby Dick turned into a comic book), tons of titles in the Hardy Boys series, and I was hooked on Choose Your Own Adventure books (these were forerunners of modern video games in that the reader's choices determined the story's ending). Our girls are six and nine, and we've mainly read to them the same stuff our parents read to us—from Dr. Seuss to the classic folk and fairy tales. Now my older daughter is nine, and she's powering through all of the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books.

What's your own library like? What sorts of books would we find on your bookshelves?

Just going from my home library, you'd probably think I had split-personality syndrome. My work is about knocking down walls between disciplines, so you’d find a wild mix of things. There'd be a lot of books about science—especially evolutionary biology and neuroscience. There'd be tons of novels too: from the classics, to modern best sellers, to great graphic novels. And you'd find the raw material for the books I've written myself: shelves on Homer and the Ancient Greeks, shelves on aggression and warfare, shelves on statistics and scientific methodologies, shelves on storytelling in all of its forms.

Which books have you read recently that you enjoyed?

Richard Russo's academic satire Straight Man had me in stitches (I think it's in the same class as Lucky Jim). And I just re-read Cormac McCarthy's The Road for a class I'm teaching—it blew me away all over again. Right now, I'm having a great time reading George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones and Jonah Lehrer's book on creativity, Imagine.

Can you tell us a bit about your next project?

The next book is a sort of non-fiction version of "Fight Club". It will be focused on the culture of cage fighting, but it will also branch out into big and ancient questions about masculinity and violence. As research, I trained at a cage fighting gym and managed to screw up my courage to participate in an actual fight. The book, which I think I'll call Monkey Dance, is about the history and science of violence, but it is also a memoir of the year I spent learning how to fight, and about the struggles—sad and silly and anachronistic though they may seem—that men face to be men.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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