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The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories Paperback – 11 Nov 2005
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This is a truly important book, an accolade often bestowed and rarely deserved in our modern age.
-Dame Beryl Bainbridge <br \><br \>This is literally an incomparable book, because there is nothing to compare it with. It goes to the heart of man's cultural evolution through the stories we have told since storytelling began. It illuminates our nature, our beliefs and our collective emotions by shining a bright light on them from a completely new angle. Original, profound, fascinating - and on top of it all, a really good read. --Sir Antony Jay, co-author of Yes, Minister
This is a truly important book, an accolade often bestowed and rarely deserved in our modern age. --Dame Beryl Bainbridge
This is literally an incomparable book, because there is nothing to compare it with. It goes to the heart of man's cultural evolution through the stories we have told since storytelling began. It illuminates our nature, our beliefs and our collective emotions by shining a bright light on them from a completely new angle. Original, profound, fascinating - and on top of it all, a really good read. --Sir Antony Jay, co-author of Yes, Minister
Breathtaking in its scope and originality, "Seven Basic Plots" examines the basis of story telling in literature, film, and libretto. No one will ever see stories in the same way again. This remarkable and monumental book at last provides a comprehensive answer to the age-old riddle of whether there are only a small number of 'basic stories' in the world. Using a wealth of examples, from ancient myths and folk tales via the plays and novels of great literature to the popular movies and TV soap operas of today, it shows that there are seven archetypal themes which recur throughout every kind of storytelling. But this is only the prelude to an investigation into how and why we are 'programmed' to imagine stories in these ways, and how they relate to the inmost patterns of human psychology. Drawing on a vast array of examples, from Proust to detective stories, from the Marquis de Sade to E.T., Christopher Booker then leads us through the extraordinary changes in the nature of storytelling over the past 200 years, and why so many stories have 'lost the plot' by losing touch with their underlying archetypal purpose.Booker analyses why evolution has given us the need to tell stories and illustrates how storytelling has provided a uniquely revealing mirror to mankind's psychological development over the past 5000 years. This seminal book opens up in an entirely new way our understanding of the real purpose storytelling plays in our lives, and will be a talking point for years to come. See all Product description
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Booker’s main focus is literature and I particularly liked his chapters on Thomas Hardy and Anton Chekhov. Indeed, these were stand out chapters for me.
Booker also covers film. I loved the way he compared Beowulf, Jaws and James Bond and saw them as essentially the same story; that is, they are all build around the same archetypes, though on the surface they may appear different. I also loved for example reading his account of Straw Dogs and his exposition on Citizen Kane. I’d certainly never thought of these stories in this way before.
I also love big books, and this is one. At at over 700 pages it provides much to chew on. If there are any drawbacks they are few. I did for example consider the first part of the book better, and perhaps easier to read, than the latter parts. This I think is due to some of the latter parts of the book being written at an earlier stage, perhaps as part of a talk or lecture Booker made, and later decided to insert them into The Seven Basic Plots. The section on Hamlet is an example of this. And the fact that Booker took over 30 years to write the book lends itself to slight style fluctuations throughout the text.
The book is a magnum opus for any literature buff. I have filed my copy with two other works of literature that I like – Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel and Colin Wilson’s Outsider. Wilson’s Outsider not only covers literature but also delves into the minds of the artists as well. In short: I would thoroughly recommend Christopher Booker’s impressive work of literature. Five stars, without question.
(If you want to write, then out of the dozens of books I've bought on writing, I only refer back to these four, and I use them regularly:
- The Seven Basic Plots;
- Save the Cat;
- The Art of Dramatic Writing;
- The Artist's Way.)
Initially, I read about one third of the book and it then languished on a shelf for over a decade before I picked it up again last year (2018). Since then I have steadily worked through the remainder and, as I’ve read, I have realized why it got put to one side: it isn’t a book which I derived much enjoyment or illumination from reading.
Although it would be obvious to say that his analysis is an attempt to see how all stories can be slotted into seven basic pigeonholes, there is also an underlying framework of Jungian psychology which permeates the book.
His estimation of Jung is given on page 554 and runs, “This, his central contribution to our understanding of the unconscious, was one of the greatest intuitive discoveries of the twentieth century, ranking alongside those of Einstein and other nuclear physicists, or Watson and Crick’s double helix.”
Back in the 1980s, I read some Jung and eagerly looked forward to having a discussion with a friend who was studying Psychology at university. It was very disappointing to discover that Psychology had moved on and Jung didn’t even get a passing mention. Of course, there will be Jungian psychotherapists who still value his work, but even 35 years ago his work was looking quite anachronistic.
This, for me, is one of the pitfalls which this book falls into over and over again: trying to shoehorn literature into a framework which is not really adequate to the task. It results in some absurdities as noted by other critical reviewers: where great literature gets lambasted and fairly trivial work gets praised.
War and Peace is described, on page 397, as a ‘profound and important’ story but he then goes on to say, “We also see in the book’s messily unresolved ending how Tolstoy was losing touch with the basic archetype.”
Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past caused him major headaches and comes in for even harsher treatment. On page 438 for example, “Thus ends the greatest monument to human egotism in the history of storytelling: a book so preoccupied with the ego-life of its author that it is not so much a story as a case study: the self-portrait of a man so frozen in immaturity by the unresolved tie to ‘Mother’ that he is incapable of making any contact with the deeper Self.”
A more sensible approach, when meeting a work which didn’t fit neatly into one’s schema, might have been to call into question whether the theoretical framework had certain deficiencies. Instead, it seems to have resulted in toys being thrown out of the pram.
This is my main objection to the book. However, I also had minor quibbles about his grasp of science and history. Overall, it was not a book which I enjoyed reading and I think that forcing things into the Jungian framework resulted in too many absurdities.