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The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us…

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

by Jonathan Gottschall

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Everybody loves a good story. But what about your own story? Years ago someone told me of their experience in a bar. Thus, my micro-fiction:


I’m feeling lonely, depressed, really down in the dog. I trudge to the closest bar and, after a couple of beers, proceed to tell the guy sitting on the next bar stool my life story. It isn’t pretty, but at least it’s mine.

When I’m all talked out, I toss a couple of bucks on the counter in disgust and hit the men’s room. But the time I’m back he is retelling my story to the guy next to him. I slide into a nearby booth so I can listen to his version without being seen. He has most of the facts straight, and the way he tells the story makes it sound really interesting.

When he’s done, the listener, in turn, begins telling my story to the guy next to him. Not bad. He also has the facts straight and his version is even more interesting than the first.

When he’s done, I can guess what’s coming and I’m not disappointed. Only this next guy telling my story isn’t just good, he’s a born storyteller. The way he embellishes my life with such pathos and humor, you would think I’m a real dashing, daredevil cavalier.

I want to hear the next version firsthand so I move alongside the listener. The storyteller finishes, pats him on the back and they both have a good hearty laugh. But when the storyteller leaves, my guy just sits there nursing his beer. I try to egg him on: “I only heard the very end but, wow, that was some story.” He doesn’t answer. After a few moments he sighs and tells me such a flat, lackluster, boring rendition, you would think he knows me better than I know myself. ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
One of the most interesting books I've read in ages. It left me with an intense desire to hone my own skills as a storyteller. ( )
  OnlyWhenILarf | Jan 14, 2017 |
This was a really neat, thought-provoking books. ( )
  K3ndra28 | Nov 15, 2016 |
I found this book to be readable, enjoyable, but ultimately lacking depth. I'd read a couple of writing books that discussed how the human brain was attracted to stories, but those books were aimed more towards writing stories that would play to that attraction. I was hoping that Gottschall would explain the attraction itself. Instead, he described the attraction. So there are detours into describing religions as stories that inspire people's real-life actions, that conspiracy theories are the need for story and meaning gone to an extreme, and that MMORPGs and LARPs may be the beginnings of a form of story that may seem more attractive than real life. All of which was interesting to read, but frustrating. As the book went on, I wanted to know if the need for story is equally strong in everyone, or are there people who are "astory"? Gottschall mentions, almost in passing, that people who are more realistic about their lives and less likely to make themselves the heroes of their own stories are more prone to depression, but that was about it. And the book was surprisingly short, winding up at the 63% point in my Kindle (the remaining 37% seems to be acknowledgements, notes, bibliography, etc.). Basically, I'd thought this book would focus on the science behind story. I was disappointed that it didn't do so as much as I'd hoped, but I still thought it was entertaining. ( )
  Silvernfire | Oct 12, 2016 |
Great idea! Great start! A mostly great interior. The final chapter went well with a recent read Ready, Player One but was less interesting to me. It was pretty short and I loved a lot of the chapter quotes. A good quick read. ( )
  Jackie_Sassa | Nov 20, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
This is an excellent resource for students to understand why things are the way they are. It would be a great extension to have students make up their own stories like that ones in this book.
added by courtneyemahr | editCourtney E. Mahr
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0547391404, Hardcover)

Jonathan Gottschall on The Storytelling Animal

What is the storytelling animal?
Only humans tell stories. Story sets us apart. For humans, story is like gravity: a field of force that surrounds us and influences all of our movements. But, like gravity, story is so omnipresent that we are hardly aware of how it shapes our lives. I wanted to know what science could tell us about humanity's strange, ardent love affair with story.

What inspired you to write this book?
I was speeding down the highway on a gorgeous autumn day, cheerfully spinning through the FM dial, and a country music song came on. My normal response to this sort of catastrophe is to turn the channel as quickly as possible. But that day, for some reason, I decided to listen. In "Stealing Cinderella," Chuck Wicks sings about a young man asking for his sweetheart's hand in marriage. The girl's father makes the young man wait in the living room, where he notices photos of his sweetheart as a child, "She was playing Cinderella/ She was riding her first bike/ Bouncing on the bed and looking for a pillow fight/ Running through the sprinkler/ With a big popsicle grin/ Dancing with her dad, looking up at him. . ." And the young man suddenly realizes that he is taking something precious from the father: he is stealing Cinderella. Before the song was over I was crying so hard that I had to pull off the road. I sat there for a long time feeling sad about my own daughters growing up to abandon me. But I was also marveling at how quickly Wicks's small, musical story had melted me into sheer helplessness. I wrote the book partly in an effort to understand what happened to me that day.

But don't you worry that science could explain away the magic of story?
I get this question a lot. The answer is "No! A thousand times, no!" Science adds to wonder; it doesn't dissolve it. Scientists almost always report that the more they discover about their subject, the more lovely and mysterious it becomes. That's certainly what I found in my own research. The whole experience left me in awe of our species--of this truly odd primate that places story (and other forms of art) at the very center of its existence.

Children come up a lot in this book, including your own children. . .
Yes, I spent a lot of time observing my two daughters (in this I took my cue from Darwin, who was a doting father, but not shy about collecting observational data on his large brood). I got lucky. My girls happened to be 4 and 7 during the main period that I was working on my book. This is the golden period of children's pretend play. And I was able to observe them spontaneously creating these fantastic wonder-worlds, with these elaborate and dangerous plots. I noticed that my girls spent almost all of their awake time in various kinds of make-believe. And I was invited to enter those worlds myself, to play the roles of princes and Ken dolls and monsters. I learned a lot about the nature of story from my girls. Story and other forms of art are often seen as products of culture. But this perspective is one-sided. Story blooms naturally in a child--it is as effortless and reflexive as breathing.

Are dreams a form of storytelling?
Yes, they are. Dreams are, like children's make-believe, a natural and reflexive form of storytelling. Researchers conventionally define dreams as "intense sensorimotor hallucinations with a narrative structure." Dreams are, in effect, night stories: they focus on a protagonist--usually the dreamer--who struggles to achieve desires. Researchers can't even talk about dreams without dragging in the basic vocabulary of English 101: plot, theme, character, scene, setting, point of view, perspective. The most conservative estimates suggest that we dream in a vivid, story-like way for more than six solid years out of a seventy-year lifespan. So dreams are definitely part of the evolutionary riddle of storytelling.

What is the future of story?
In the digital age, people are reading less fiction, but this is because they've found new ways to jam extra story into their lives--on average we watch five hours of TV per day, listen to hours of songs, and spend more and more time playing story-centric video games. I think we are seeing, in video games, the birth of what will become the 21st century's dominant form of storytelling. The fantasy lands of online games like World of Warcraft attract tens of millions of players, who spend an average of 20–30 hours per week adventuring in interactive story. Players describe the experience of these games as "being inside a novel as it is being written." In upcoming decades, as computing power increases exponentially, these virtual worlds are going to become so attractive that we will be increasingly reluctant to unplug. So the real danger isn't that story will disappear from our lives. It is that story will take them over completely.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:33 -0400)

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