The Storytelling Animal – Book Review

First, the short version: Excellent book on the power of story. Fascinating and insightful, a must read if you have any interest at all in the subject matter. One of the best books I have read in a long time . . . fresh, original, and enlightening.

Now the long version: [amazon_link id=”0547391404″ target=”_blank” ]The Storytelling Animal[/amazon_link] is a fascinating account of the power of story. The author has included many original anecdotes and drawn from hundreds of sources to create a compelling account of how stories make us human.

Each chapter covers a different aspect of this strange phenomenon, from dreams to memoirs to the future of storytelling.

* The Witchery of Story: This chapter is covers the power of story throughout history, geography, and our daily life. The quote that begins the chapter is one of my favorites:

“Lord! When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night – there’s all heaven and earth in a book, in a real book I mean.” Christopher Morley, Parnassus on Wheels.

* The Riddle of Fiction: Why do we need story? What drives us, what sense does it make? While I did not agree with everything the author concludes here, the theories he presents are insightful. The account he gives of children and the pretend play they engage in is well worth reading, one of my favorite parts of the book.
Hell Is Story-Friendly: Why do we crave stories with trouble in them?

“Stories the world over are almost always about people (or personified animals) with problems. the people want something badly – to survive, to win the girl or the boy, to find a lost child. But big obstacles loom between the protagonists and what they want. Just about any story – comic, tragic, romantic – is about a protagonist’s efforts to secure, usually at some cost, what he or she desire.” (52)

* Night Story: Our brain does not stop telling stories, even while we are asleep.

* The Mind Is A Storyteller: Great chapter, really like the anecdote about James Tilly Matthews. Have added Illustrations of Madness and The Air Loom Gang to my wish list.

* The Moral Of The Story: The weakest chapter in the book. The author covers religion here and theorizes that humans invented religion as a means of advancing culture and fostering community. Does not really address the chapter title of where morals come from if this is true, why it could not be the other way around (we crave stories because some religion is true), etc.

* Ink People Change The World: Very good chapter – bottom line, fiction is powerful. Fiction can, and does, change more minds and influence more people than non-fiction. Story can break down our defenses and help us to empathize with and accept others (ex. Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

* Life Stories: My favorite chapter in the book, worth buying and reading for just this chapter and the next. Memoirs can’t be trusted, we fictionalize much of our own memory, and story is a central part of our past.

* The Future of Story:

“These are undeniably nervous times for people who make a living through story. the publishing, film, and television businesses are going through a period of painful change. but the essence of story is not changing. The technology of storytelling has evolved from oral tales, to clay tablets, to hand-lettered manuscripts, to printed books, to movies, televisions, Kindles, and iPhones. The wreaks havoc on business models, but it doesn’t fundamentally change story. Fiction is as it was and ever will be: Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication” (186)

In summary, this is an excellent book and well worth your money. I approach story from a different starting point than the author as a Christian, but there is still much to learn. C.S. Lewis talks about Christianity being more like math than a religion . . . underlying the fabric of our universe. The fact is that story pervades reality and the lives of humans. I’ll end with the quote that the author uses to start the book:

“God made Man, because He loves stories.” Elie Wiesel, The Gates Of The Forest

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