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{Review} The Storytelling Animal, or Why Stories Get to Us.

The Storytelling Animal, earthbound oracle

I had long wanted to read The Storytelling Animal, since the idea that story is hardwired into us really spoke to me.

Why Story Matters.

I’m not new to this concept- when I was in graduate school for Expressive Arts Therapy, we talked a lot about how humans are meaning making creatures. We seek meaning like moths who want to hug lightbulbs. Sometimes it warms us up, but sometimes it kills us.

Ok, maybe it doesn’t kill us, but it can change the way we see our lives, and it can prevent us from taking risks. If we’ve got a story running in our heads that we can’t handle things, or if -for example- we’re women and have been trained to be timid then we can shut ourselves down before we even start.

I know all of this, but I wanted to read this book because I wanted to know why story impacts us so deeply in the first place. Why is it that I read a book and then when I finish it, I have to go cry in the shower because it’s over? Why am I crying over breakfast today having just finished Downton Abbey last night and hating that I’ll never see a new plot line with those characters again? What is it about story that does this to me?

Ok, granted, I might be a bit more invested than other people are in this area, and therefore more impacted, but no one seems to be entirely immune from story. Even people watching sports have a narrative of who the players are, what matters to them, how they’ve been performing over the season and what that means to them. It’s a battlefield epic.

Enter Jonathan Gottschall.

At the very least, I was consoled that I am not alone in being wooed by story the way I am:

“Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds.” -Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal.

The book dives in to the topic of story and how people are impacted in it. I would say that, in the end, I could have stood for even more diving. I certainly felt well educated in the impact of story- that it serves as a cultural glue and communicates social norms more effectively than any lecturing from parents or authorities ever could.

I was also vindicated to learn that science, along with experience, shows that non-fiction does not hit us as deeply as fiction does.

“When we read nonfiction, we read it with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.” -Jonathan Gottschall

This absolutely rings true for me, although creative nonfiction may bridge that divide effectively. There are many memoirs that have felt enough like novels that I am sucked completely down into the abyss with them. But on the whole it is fiction that causes me to depart from my current surroundings and float away to somewhere else…

One thing I have read more and more frequently is how much reading fiction can impact someone’s level of empathy. And Gottschall does discuss the fact that the unconscious mind doesn’t do the best job of differentiating between what is actually happening to us, and what’s in the mind alone. This felt like the strongest argument why I feel a huge loss when I finish a book or a really good show, and the characters are suddenly gone, like friends who have moved far away and forget to write.

Our minds go through the story with the characters as if we are really with them. As if it’s just as real as our waking life.

Perhaps this is the way we are truly storytelling animals- that our animal senses as the impact of imagination haven’t been separated from what we know to be real and what is simply in a book or inside a story. I hope we never do entirely separate them. If we learn to enjoy this ability we have, rather than using it to conjure up the worst possible outcome and then live it over and over in our heads when it hasn’t even happened yet- who hasn’t done that, after all?- we can use this power to relate to people more deeply. We can read stories about people in different circumstances, even fantasy or science fiction novels in entirely different worlds, or historical novels in different times.

We are left to wonder, reading these books, “What would I do if I were in the same situation?”

And I believe asking this question, again and again, makes us better people.

Instead of settling with a stagnant sense of who we are and who we’ll always be, the Storytelling Animal can escape the current world and see who we’d be somewhere else. Perhaps we’ll even do a better job in our lives now because of it.

I like to think I have.

Have you read The Storytelling Animal? If so, please do share your thoughts below, email me, or share on the FB page. Have you read any books that make you a more empathetic person? I’d love to hear about those as well. Thanks in advance for the recommendations!

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