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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Humans are primarily storytellers
How important is the story for human beings? This simple yet deep question is a starting point for Jonathan Gottschall's 2012 book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, a well thought-out and richly documented study of the importance of stories and storytelling in our lives. Make no mistake, this book is far from being merely an account of different puzzles...
Published 19 months ago by Rob G

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very entertaining but...
At the end of the book you wonder: what what's that all about?
Anyway it's a very good book an the author writes you smoothly through every chapter. I just hoped it was more groundbreaking...
Published 14 months ago by Giacomo


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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Humans are primarily storytellers, 10 May 2013
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This review is from: The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Paperback)
How important is the story for human beings? This simple yet deep question is a starting point for Jonathan Gottschall's 2012 book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, a well thought-out and richly documented study of the importance of stories and storytelling in our lives. Make no mistake, this book is far from being merely an account of different puzzles and questions concerning human ability to tell stories. The author draws from various disciplines like biology or evolutionary psychology and makes a convincing argument that stories help us to adapt and survive in an ever changing world.

Gottschall is one of the leading scholars of a newly emerging branch of literary criticism, Darwinian Literary Studies, which promises to bridge the gap between humanities and more empirical areas of knowledge. The interdisciplinary spectrum of Literary Darwinism enables scholars to establish a fresh perspective on human cognition. Thus, The Storytelling Animal is a part of a cutting-edge study and as such increases our understanding of basic human drives and behaviors.

The structure of the book is lucid and clear. I particularly liked how each chapter smoothly guides the reader to the following one, much like separate episodes of a story are linked to become a greater whole. On the other hand, every chapter could be read as a standalone work--this speaks volumes about Gottschall's remarkable skill as a scholar and an author. Without a doubt the writing style is a positive element of the book. Gottschall does not shy away from discussing scientific matters in detail, yet manages to do so in a lighthearted tone sprinkled with a bit of irony and a tad of anecdote. All of this combined makes the reader "feel" the presence of the author, as if we are having a friendly and engaging conversation with Gottschall. He lays down the ideas, but it is ultimately the reader's task to pick them up and contemplate on them.

Gottschall's starts his study with an amusing story. It has long been believed that an immortal ape could, when locked in a room with a typewriter and Notes Towards the Complete Works of Shakespeare, recreate Shakespeare's masterpieces. As silly as this theory sounds, "the ape story" foreshadows Gottschall's line of argument in his book. As he claims, no other animal has the capacity to create stories. No other animal can learn from stories. A human being is not only homo sapiens, the reasoning man, but is perhaps first and foremost homo fictus, the fictionalizing man.

But why people create fiction? Gottschall dedicates the remainder of his book to find the answer. In the following chapters he establishes that storytelling is a much more fundamental element of human nature than most of us think. First of all, Gottschall claims that the traditional distinction between author (the source of a story) and the reader (the passive received) in not as clear cut as it may appear. Gottschall explains that contrary to the popular belief it is the reader who, when immersed in the story, does much of the imaginative work. When reading fiction we meticulously analyze details set by the author. We create specific images of the story and interpret them at whim. We tend to feel deep connection with the protagonists. We make moral judgments. In other words, we care very much about fiction. As Gottshall explains: "[w]hen we experience a story, our brains are churning, working hard" (5). But this experience is retained also when we play or daydream. Studies on children's games or our daily fantasies confirm as much. We unfold stories in every second of our lives--storytelling is our "default state."

However, if this is so, what is the purpose of fiction? Isn't daydreaming inherently dangerous, because people are cut off from reality? Not necessarily. Our brain is an extraordinary machine, says Gottschall. Its main evolutionary function is to help us to adapt, and it can fulfill this function by creating a story--and this is Gottschall's most powerful point--storytelling can be seen as an evolutionary tool. Stories make us follow complicated plots, solve mysteries, experience varieties of emotions and mental states, refine social competence, stimulate imagination. Without them our lives would be dull. And even more importantly, from these experiences we incorporate knowledge--we gain evolutionary advantage.
This notion is corroborated by another powerful idea conveyed by Gottschall. He claims that our brains do not know the difference between simulation and reality. Indeed, "to simulate is to do." For example, if we read about a wizard fighting an evil dragon, we experience what it means to fight an evil dragon as if it was real. In this respect stories not only teach us, but as Gottshall maintains: "[t]he emotions of fiction are highly contagious, and so are ideas" (150). Thus fiction shapes our personality, influences our choices, and makes us who we are. What is more, Gottschall demonstrates that the view that humans are creatures of pure reason is fundamentally mistaken. We fictionalize everything; our reality is as much about facts as it is about our fictionalized interpretation of data.

Interestingly, now are the times when we are able not only to fictionalize reality, but create a virtual one. In the concluding chapters of The Storytelling Animal Gottschall talks about the prospects of this change. He tries to sneak-peak the future of the story, and what a marvelous future it is. The technology changed our ways of communication. Radio, TV, the Internet--each new medium was a milestone in human development. But in the future virtual reality will be more than that; it has the potential to become our home. We will not only communicate in a different way, but we will create scripts for our lives in virtual reality--a promise to fulfill everyone's wildest dreams. Everyone will write his own life story, and the only limit will be one's imagination. Will there ever be a time when each person will live in a custom-made world? It is hard to say, but undeniably the opportunity presents itself.

To sum up, in my opinion Gottschall managed to write an excellent study that introduces a fresh take on the art of storytelling. Once relegated to the margins of scholarly interest, storytelling regains its place as a core part of the study of human nature.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Power of Stories, 14 Aug 2012
Ever since the first people sat around their campfire, we have told stories to make sense of the world. When we tell a story, we make connections between a series of events. We understand how one thing led to another; we can even predict what might happen next. Stories are important because they literally create reality. They determine how we see the world, and consequently how we will behave.
I was looking for something else when I came across this book. Immediately I was intrigued: because I have also written a book about the power of stories. I teach mythology, and am fascinated by how mythic themes recur in our own lives. We use ideas from stories we have heard to develop our own 'life script'. My book 'LifeWorks' was published earlier this year - I was so excited! I've just been asked to write another article... There, I've told you my story. You see how powerful stories are.
I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone interested in stories. And that means everyone: because telling stories is what makes us human.
Jane Bailey Bain ('LifeWorks: Using myth & archetype to develop your life story')
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why do we tell stories? Because we can't not tell stories., 25 July 2012
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This is a fascinating exploration of just how central the concept of 'story' is to the human animal, how much the idea of creating a narrative form is to our existence. Humans have been telling stories as long as we have been recognisably human: early cave paintings are telling a story of hunting and conflict; all religions at their core are based on stories, whether those stories be truth or fiction; our memories involve telling stories, filling in blanks based on extrapolation and conjecture; solving crimes involves creating a plausible narrative from the evidence available. Our brains even weave stories as we sleep! And humans aren't the only animals that dream, so there must be some kind of evolutionary imperative for story.

So why? Gottschall argues that the act of storytelling is intrinsic to humans because it allows us to 'act out' or experience things without the inherent perils involved. Studies have shown that our brains react identically to an emotion or experience regardless of whether we are reading about that experience, watching someone else go through it or experiencing it ourselves. To our brains there is no difference between reality and 'story'. So storytelling creates a safe environment for us to practice, for lack of a better world, to experience a multitude of dangers and conflicts from a secure vantage point.

At its heart, he argues, all story is about conflict, about overcoming obstacles, about triumphing over disaster or evil. Even from an incredibly young age, childrens' play involves moral dilemmas, good guys v. bad guys, fighting dragons, protecting the innocent, defending one's own. And since the brain adapts based on repeated experience, repeated exposure to these kind of fictional occurrences can actually help our brain learn how to deal with them in reality, to be ready.

He also looks at how story has evolved, from what was for millennia a purely visual or oral form of delivery, through to today's story where we are exposed to a narrative structure in everything from novels to video games, advertisements to songs, news reports and our not-entirely reliable memories. Story is everywhere, and it's not going away. Indeed, story is becoming ever more immersive, to the point, he argues, where we could find ourselves in danger of immersing ourselves in the story world to the exclusion of the real world. We're already getting there, with people spending hours and hours immersed in MMORPGs, and sooner or later the kind of virtual reality technology seen in Star Trek's holodecks will become a reality.

This was a really interesting read, about an aspect of ourselves that we take so for granted. We don't even think about intrinsic the concept of story is to our lives, and yet it is hardwired into our DNA.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very entertaining but..., 22 Oct 2013
This review is from: The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Paperback)
At the end of the book you wonder: what what's that all about?
Anyway it's a very good book an the author writes you smoothly through every chapter. I just hoped it was more groundbreaking...
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Storytelling Animal, 3 Aug 2013
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This review is from: The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Paperback)
Very good book, makes us understand why all humans love stories so much , makes it easier to understand what is going on iin the world. And YES I would recommend to a friend
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very thought-provoking - many parts have returned to my mind since., 29 Mar 2013
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Gottschall maybe overplays a bit the importance of story to make his point, but it's neverless as fascinating read, covering many different forms of story across fiction/novels, myths and legends, religious stories, dreams, memoires, etc explaining how powerful stories can be to change history, and touching on memory and neuroscience and how our brains are "formatted" to create, transmit and receive information in the form of stories. He makes a compelling case, I really enjoyed reading the book, and have thought about aspects of it a fair few times since then.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great book, 29 Dec 2013
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An extremely accessible read for all those who are curious and want to be introduced to the field of Darwinian literary studies.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars dull, poorly referenced, and huge sweeping statements, 26 Feb 2013
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this book was awful, dull, poorly referenced, poorly argued, poorly foot-noted, and gave HUGE sweeping statements throughout, such as "children adore art by nature not nurture" (p23). This statement, and many more, had no background information or further explanation. They were just stated as fact.

From the review I imagined I would be reading an interesting and serious book about storytelling (a big interest of mine, and graduate subject), which uses referencing, argument, and evidence to come to conclusions. This book is based on speculation, gossip and heresay. A thorough disappointment and waste of money.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, 30 Sep 2014
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A masterpiece!
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The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human
The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall (Paperback - 23 April 2013)
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