The Storytelling Animal, by Jonathan Gottschall

Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human is a highly readable examination of the role of story in the human experience, revealing the nature and pure ubiquity of storytelling across all aspects of life.

The author, Jonathan Gottschall, delves into recent research on the brain and human behavior to show how storytelling has played a prominent role in our evolution.

Mr, Gottschall writes with a sunny, inquisitive touch, yet, a prominent theme is that stories are frequently dark, horrid affairs which dominate our dreams and commune with all manner of unsavory truths. He suggests that the naked terrors of children’s stories, full of abandonment, violence, and cruelty, serve as a virtual practice field for young humans to adapt to the brutal nature of reality. He then offers evidence to suggest that, once grown up, we humans use stories to codify morality – defining what is and isn’t acceptable tribal behavior – and to justify transgressions and sins both personal and national in scope.

Gottschall next examines the role that story and associated art forms played in inspiring and empowering Hitler, and then Germany, to execute the holocaust. He suggests that stories continue to provide a ready means for people to deflect, recast, and confabulate realities that may be too painful or shameful to swallow undiluted. Unfortunately, these observations feel all too relevant to the current US political climate.

Ultimately, he suggests that, despite new technologies that seem to threaten classical story forms, such as the novel, story will always be woven into virtually every aspect of our culture and existence. 

Gottschall is a prolific writer and colorful guy. His latest book, The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch (2015), documents his three-year quest to become a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter. Never a champion warrior in the ring. he nonetheless lands some unique insights while writing about the nature of masculinity and violence in the human condition.

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Author: Jonathan Gottschall

Publisher, year, edition: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2013, First Mariner Books edition

Price and format: $14.95, paperback

ISBN: 978-0-544-00234-0