Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

Completion Date: May 22, 2012
Reason for Reading: TLC Book Tour Stop.
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. It’s easy to say that humans are “wired” for story, but why?

In this delightful and original book, 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. Did you know that the more absorbed you are in a story, the more it changes your behavior? That all children act out the same kinds of stories, whether they grow up in a slum or a suburb? That people who read more fiction are more empathetic?
Of course, our story instinct has a darker side. It makes us vulnerable to conspiracy theories, advertisements, and narratives about ourselves that are more “truthy” than true. National myths can also be terribly dangerous: Hitler’s ambitions were partly fueled by a story.

But as Gottschall shows in this remarkable book, stories can also change the world for the better. Most successful stories are moral—they teach us how to live, whether explicitly or implicitly, and bind us together around common values. We know we are master shapers of story. The Storytelling Animal finally reveals how stories shape us.
My date for this post was originally the 21st, but sometimes Canada is the middle of nowhere for the mail system. I ended up only getting my book on the 22nd. I am only a little late all things considered. The book is actually rather short.

Have you ever had a terrible time expressing your feelings about a book? I tried to write this review last night, but I didn't like any of my posts. I was drawn to this book because of the subtitle: 'How Stories Make Us Human'. I enjoy stories, as most readers do, and was interested a book that looked at these elements. The thing is, I am not quite sure I got what I was looking for out of this read. Like I said above, the book was short and I think it was too short to really develop things. It makes the book fast-paced and an easy read, but I almost felt like he chose theories and ideas that fit his book, called them fact, and moved on with his book. It was like things were too generalized. And, I am not entirely sure he gets facts across. A lot of the time I felt like this was more a personal look at stories instead of a factual one. Which would have been fine if it was more a memoir than a non-fiction look at a subject.

In the end there were things that really bothered me about this book. I was very disturbed by some of the discussions about gender. He says he is quoting fact, but it is out-dated theories and there are many people that see gender entirely differently, so obviously not fact. He talks about how a preschool/kindergarten teacher did research on the way that the girl and books in her class played. She said that the girls 'played dolls; they pined for their princes; they rarely ran or wrestled or shouted; they often told stories about bunnies and magical pink hippos'. The boys, though, 'sprinted and shouted and happily rioted; they shot the whole room full of imaginary bullet holes and scorched it with bombs'. After I read this part I decided I must have had a very strange childhood. And my friends daughters that have no interest in dolls must be abnormal. And, my friends boys that would happily play with dolls don't exist in the world of research. This whole section just bothered me and the author has two daughters. I could go on about it further, but it is only one section out of the entire book.

There were things I liked about this book, though. He talks about all the scandals surrounding memoirs and how even afterwards people still rush out to buy the next book about someone's struggles and successes believing it to be true. In reference to this he talks about how people don't always set out to lie, but they sometimes remember things differently than they actually happened. I have always found that idea interesting, so I enjoyed that aspect of the book. Then he talks about how fiction and stories will carry on in a world where others are saying the novel is dying. It is always nice to know that other people are positive about the future of the written word.

The bottom line, this was an interesting read. I just didn't feel it was a read for me. As I said there were interesting sections, but overall I felt that I was looking for something that just wasn't there. He mentions himself and his daughters a lot, which may be fine for others, but I found took away from my reading experience because I wasn't expecting something so personal. That being said, reading is a personal thing and it is hard to distance yourself from that. His overall thesis, though, that stories are important and will always be around I entirely agree with.

I suggest visiting these other blogs and getting their take on things before making up your own mind, though:

Tuesday, May 15th: Sophisticated Dorkiness
Wednesday, May 16th: The Book Garden
Thursday, May 17th: Unabridged Chick
Tuesday, May 22nd: Bibliophiliac
Wednesday, May 23rd: Peppermint PhD
Monday, May 28th: Book Dilettante
Wednesday, May 30th: Built by Story
Tuesday, June 5th: cakes, tea and dreams
Thursday, June 7th: The Feminist Texican [Reads]
Saturday, Jun 9th: A Life Sustained

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for letting me participate in this tour and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book.


  1. "I almost felt like he chose theories and ideas that fit his book, called them fact, and moved on with his book."

    Yep, exactly! And I completely agree about the gender discussion too. The problem I have with essentialist approaches to gender (other than them being factually wrong) is exactly that by naturalising certain ideas about gendered behaviour they amount to policing people's gender performance; to telling people like you or me or your friend's daughter that there must be something wrong with us if we're not complying with "nature's plan" - we must be abnormal. It's the kind of thing that makes me want to hit people in the head with copies of Delusions of Gender :P

    It sounds like our feelings about this book were very similar. I do love the premise, though, and I enjoyed bits of it. Someone left me a comment the other day recommending Story Species by Joseph Gold. I'll have to give it a try at some point.

  2. As I read the synopsis of the book, I could feel my fingers itching to get my hands on a copy of this book. The more I read of your review, however, the more disappointed I became. It could have been so much more from the sounds of it.

    Is it a recently published book? It's a tour book so I imagine so I wondered though with the gender issues you and Nymeth raise.

  3. Hi Kailana, I feel a little awkward showing up at this discussion--like I've barged into a room where people have been talking about me. Hope you don't mind :) First, thanks for taking the time to read and review the book. I truly appreciate it. But I think you, and Nymeth also, have the wrong idea about the material on children and gender. I think there's an is-ought distinction that we need to hold in mind. Just because boys do more violence play and more rough-and-tumble play for example--much more, across cultures--doesn't mean that that is a good thing that we should try to promote. And the same goes for the patterns in girl play. I'm not saying they are good, just that they "are." The reserach is very up to date. A lot of it was culled from Melvin Konner's highly regarded The Evolution of Childhood (Harvard 2011)--which is itself a meticulous survey of all the literature in the area. This book shows that a lot of the stereotypes we apply to boys and girls (and men and women) don't hold up well under scrutiny. But it suggests that other patterns hold across cultures and socialization regimes, and likely have a biological basis. Obviously,I think it's wrong to conclude from this that, say, boys who play with dolls--or girls who play with trucks/guns--are weirdos and that we need to cram them back into their proper, "essential" gender boxes. These are statistical patterns, not absolute rules.
    Thanks again,
    Jonathan Gottschall

  4. Yikes! This sounded really interesting from the blurb, but his perceptions of gender would just piss me off. It sounds like he takes a very narrow, heteronormative, and stereotypical view of gender. I will be skipping this one. Great review!

  5. The idea of memory and how people don't set out to tell a lie but end up remembering things differently than they happened is very interesting to me! I could read a whole book on that alone, and it's very interesting as it relates to memoirs specifically.

    Thanks for being on the tour!

  6. I too am drawn by the subtitle, it's something I believe with all my heart.

  7. Gender stereotypes exist, but the question is why? If most girls prefer pink and playing with dolls is it a result of the way their brains are wired or the way their choices are presented? Same with boys. Does playing with Leggo people and/or toy soldiers count as playing with dolls? Who chooses the toys that the children play with? How much identification with a parent exists? What colors have their parents painted their rooms and used for bedding, etc.?

    Children are influenced by their parents' choices and by social and cultural traditions AND by social media, but are there other differences we can't yet identify with certainty? And aren't there differences that we should celebrate?

    My daughters were both princesses (mostly influenced by television commercials, not me)and adventurers. When I visited one of my granddaughter's kindergarten classes, the girls raced and wrestled along with the boys, but that was outside. I wonder what it would be like to watch them all day and see how their play went. And to document the changes, statistically, from K through the 4th grade....

  8. Hmmm...this does sound a little bit of a mess actually though the idea behind it sounded neat at first. Thanks for your honest review.


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