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Monday, April 2, 2012

Humans Are 'The Storytelling Animal'

Gottschall explains how narrative shapes our world

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Jonathan Gottschall has written a smart, concise book on the history and implications of storytelling, providing a refreshing and insightful overview of the mystery and importance of story. To the English grad this may appear to be an obvious whiff of 101, but that should not deter them or the curious novice from digging in; for the beginner it's a good primer and for the hardened pro it's a great brush-up on the invigorating enchantment of narrative that perpetually surrounds us all.

Gottschall's The Storytelling Animal (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is neither a didactic plunge into timeworn academics nor a how-to book, but rather an engaging, palatable journey through the roots and tendencies of the prevalent myths and fictions that we receive as well as create.

A professor of English at Washington & Jefferson College, Gottschall explores the vast incarnations of the narrative realm from past to present, taking us from the primal tales told around the campfire to today's growing vortex into the virtual world, making clear that story has always been with us and always will be, along the way providing fascinating insights into the varieties of storytelling and their persuasive use and often times misuse in the personal and the historic.

The Storytelling Animal's
expansive reach covers memoirs and conspiracy theories, the night world of dreams (whether they are meaningful parallels to the waking world, as Freud suspects, or merely enigmatic fluff) and the received narratives of religious and nationalistic mythmaking. It examines the importance of formative, childhood make-believe to its mutation of adult make-believe: pro-wrestling. It cites the implausibility of many of Sherlock Holmes' overreaching assumptions and the manic connection of unlikely dots by conspiracy theorists, obsessively finding patterns in random incidents, sometimes in ridiculous notions such as the "face on Mars" (somehow proving life existed there), as well as the bizarrely elaborate delusions of James Tilly Matthews (as they say, you'll have to read about that one).

Narrative conversely can have a vast positive impact, such as the social empathy stirred from Uncle Tom's Cabin, the best-selling book of the 19th century next to the Bible, illuminating the horrors of slavery and arousing sympathies that ultimately led to the freedom of an entire race.

Heading into the contemporary, Gottschall explores the burgeoning virtual world. He elicits a cautionary tale of the dangers of absolute immersion in a digital universe, one that we have to increasingly navigate our way through.

Ultimately, The Storytelling Animal illuminates our inherent and essential compulsion to perpetually create narratives to accompany our "real world" existence. This impulse is seen as a need for rehearsal in our lives—not only as a very necessary problem-solving mechanism, but also as a self-serving solipsistic device to propagate our standing as valiant protagonists in our own lives' narratives.

So, story not only possesses its charming ability to take us on imaginative flights of fancy, but in its greatest role it helps us deal with the formidable vagaries of life we'll encounter, and buttresses us against the disappointments we'll inevitably face and the ultimate triumphs we someday hope to achieve. For better or worse, life continues to be about the stories we keep telling ourselves.