A lively pop-science overview of the reasons why we tell stories and why storytelling will endure.
Gottschall (English/Washington & Jefferson Coll.; Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, 2008, etc.) knows that any book about telling stories must be well-written and engaging, and his snapshots of the worlds of psychology, sleep research and virtual reality are larded with sharp anecdotes and jargon-free summaries of current research. His thesis is that humans’ capacity to tell stories isn’t just a curious aspect of our genetic makeup but an essential part of our being: We tell stories—in fiction, in daydreams, in nightmares—as ways to understand and work through conflicts, the better to be prepared when those conflicts arise in reality. To that end, novels are usually “problem stories” that have strong moral underpinnings. That also helps explain why there are so many fake memoirs, he argues—the instinct to give a conflict-and-resolution arc to stories leads many memoirists to tweak (and even invent) details to fit the pattern. Gottschall uses research into mental illness as a way to explore the intensity of our narrative urge, and he explores how imagined characters can have a real-life impact. (Consider Hitler’s obsession with Wagner operas, or the influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on abolition.) Though novels may change or become less popular, writes the author, the instinct for story is deathless, and his closing pages explore recent phenomena like live-action role-playing and massive multiplayer games for hints of what future storytelling will become. Is World of Warcraft better or worse for our brains than novels? Is violent storytelling a cause for concern? The author discusses such concerns only glancingly. For him, one kind of storytelling is largely as good as any other, but he convincingly argues that story goes on.
Gottschall brings a light touch to knotty psychological matters, and he’s a fine storyteller himself.