Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Book Review - The Storytelling Animal

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall
2012, Houghton Mifflin
Format - Hardback provided to me by publisher via TLC Book Tours

Why?  When the May/June TLC list came around, I was drawn to this book.  I enjoy non-fiction as much as fiction and really enjoy a well done academic type text.  This sounded like it had my name written all over it.  

What Now?  This is a little book packed with resources for an academic like me who has to constantly try to control the amount of distraction...things I need to look up, journals and books that need to be read, research that needs to be investigated, and on and on and on it goes.  I'll be highlighting the bibliography for a while and seeing where it takes me.  I've written and underlined all through the book, so it will stay with me on my keeper shelf :)

Golden Lines

Like Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence, authors trick readers into doing most of the imaginative work. Reading is often seen as a passive act: we lie back and let writers pipe joy into our brains.  But, this is wrong.  When we experience a story, our minds are churning, working hard.

In the Grimm's collection of fairy tales, for example, children are menaced by cannibal witches, wolves bolt down personified pigs, mean giants and innocent children meet grisly deaths, Cinderella is orphaned, and the ugly stepsisters slash off chunks of their feet in hopes of cramming them into the tiny glass slipper (and this is before getting their eyes pecked out by birds).

...fiction, by constantly marinating our brains in the theme of poetic justice, may be partly responsible for the overly optimistic sense that the world is, on the whole, a just place. And yet the fact that we take this lesson to heart may be an important part of what makes human societies work.

People bolt down the sweet jam of storytelling and don't even notice the undertaste of the powder (whatever message the writer is communicating).

A "life story" is a personal myth" about who we are deep down - where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means.   Our life stories are who we are.  They are our identity.  A life story is not, however, an objective account.  A life story is a carefully shaped narrative that is replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings.

While the novel has ancient precursors, it rose as a dominating force only in the eighteenth century.  We were creatures of story before we had novels, and we will be creatures of story if sawed-off attention spans or technological advances ever render the novel obsolete.  Story evolves.  Like a biological organism, it continuously adapts itself to the demands of its environment.


Whether it is through children's play, a book we read, a movie or t.v. show we watch, or even commercials, video games and music, according to Gottschall, our brains are "wired for story."  We don't just use story  to escape our everyday lives; we also use story to practice responses to real life dramas and even to unconsciously tie us with other members of our society.  Our brains are constantly telling stories, many times when we don't even realize it.  Marketing strategies, religion, our own personal identities, and even propaganda are based on the fact that our brains are wired for story that explains the world around us...something to fill in the blanks, whether or not that something is actually true or false.
Story touches many more parts of our lives than most of us probably realize, and this has been true historically as well.  

What I Liked

The notes section and the bibliography - for researchers, these sections are like drugs...
This is one of the reasons my PhD took 8 years to complete.  I just couldn't focus on one question...every document I read led me to 6 more, and those 6 led me to 6 more each...before I knew it I was flailing around in academic Neverland trying to make all the pieces fit, no matter how vague the connections were.  Only because of my sweet, loveable, but strict and serious chairperson was I able to be turned around time and again to the only question that mattered right dissertation question.  She told me I could do all that other research later...we had to finished one thing at a time.  
Because of 8 years of searching endless bibliography sections to make sure I wasn't missing some key piece of research, it is an OCD habit of mine to read them when they are offered by authors like Gottschall.  That doesn't mean I'll read all of the items on his resource list, but I will probably look up many of them.  

Gottschall weaves in characters and plotlines from literature...classic selections as well as more contemporary examples.  

The very thorough discussion of story morals and violence...essentially that some of these very stories we think cause more violence in a sense force us to think about these acts and the consequences of them and become an even more moral or nonviolent society.  However, the science and research behind the effects of fiction such as horror movies also shows that our minds can be "molded" and even traumatized by fiction.  The brain can also be led to believe things that are not actually true.  This part was a little scary to me, but I think very important for all of us to remember.
The discussion of historical literary effects on the world at large was one of my favorite parts.

The Future of Story - I loved the discussion of how story has evolved and will continue evolving and the specific examples used.  

What I Didn't Like

Redundant information - for me, the investigations of Bruner, Piaget, Chomsky are old hat...information that was drilled into my head all the way back to undergraduate days.  As an elementary ed major, it was imperative that I understood the purpose of children's dramatic play.  I also spent a lot of time reading and writing about children's literature, classic fairytales, gender roles among children at play, etc.  I was very worried at first that I would have to slog through The Storytelling Animal ...until I reached the chapter on night stories.  

I HATED the part about Jouvet's 1950's experiments with cats.  I don't even want to talk about it.

The example of Tom and Sarah's Paris affair...even the author admits it was "questionable taste"
I understood the author's point just fine with literary examples like Swift's "A Modest Proposal" - I understand satire and know that its intent is to make people uncomfortable to point out the ridiculousness of a situation but gracious!

There were at times extended examples of story that got on my nerves, and I skimmed...I realize the author was just giving detailed examples of what he was saying, but I didn't feel he had to explain to me every minute detail of the newest technologies, specifically the grown up role playing games.  In all fairness to the author, the only experience I've ever had with these games is through a student essay every now and then.  

Overall Recommendations

If you're the least bit interested in brain research, psychology, learning theories, etc. I think you'll enjoy this one. 

FTC Disclosure: I was provided a copy of The Storytelling Animal from the publisher via TLC Book Tours; however, the opinions are my own.

For more information about The Storytelling Animal, please check out the author's website here
and the book trailer here.

Other stops on the TLC Book Tour


  1. Not my kind of book but I am a bit like you. Research just leads me to more research and before I know it, nothing is accomplished but the research itself. 

  2. This one has been high on my radar, but looking over the parts you didn't care for, I suspect I'll have some of the same issues. Great, honest review!

  3. A little more brainwork than I wanted to do right here at the beginning of our summer vacation but still a fast read.  

  4. I'm definitely interested in trying this one.  I am OK at staying focused on a particular subject when researching but I can't rest until I've read EVERYTHING THAT EXISTS that is on the subject.  This is of course massively impractical!

  5. I've tried explaining that impracticality to my brain on many occasions...;)

  6. I just bought this book yesterday, and I am so excited about it! I love books that are about reading and books, so this one is bound to be a favorite. I will have to remember your caveats though!

  7. bermudaonion (Kathy)May 24, 2012 at 2:42 PM

    The fact that you skimmed parts of this one makes me think this probably isn't for me.

  8. Sounds like there was a lot to like in here (and some things not to like ... that part about the cats?!). Glad you enjoyed it overall! Thanks for being on the tour.

  9. It's a good one! I think you'll like it!

  10. I appreciated the author's attention to detail in order to make his points but for me it just redundant sometimes.

  11. brain research on stray cats...that's all I'm gonna say...I have nightmares about stuff like that :(

  12. This information gives me so much pride in saying that I build my life around written stories....thank you!