Weekend Review: The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

It's hard to deny that story is everywhere. Whether on prime time television, a novel, or in the way that we describe ourselves when we first meet someone, the human animal is constantly participating in an exchange of stores; spinning and consuming. In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Jonathan Gottschall explores this phenomenon and argues that it isn't a fluke, but a skill that is hardwired into us and that provides us with an evolutionary advantage.

Gottschall begins with our common ability to be sucked into a good story. Narrative can remove us from our physical location and, through our imaginations, transport us across lands and through time. Books do this to us, but so do movies and television, music, video games, and our dreams. Children are especially good at this because their primary task is to explore and learn, but all of us, whether we admit to it or not, get swept away often to the point that we have a difficult time discerning the line between fact and fiction. The common thread in a "good" story, he tells us, is trouble and it is this constant playing through scenarios of overcoming adversity that helps us to navigate the challenges that we face in the real world.  Gottschall rejects the claims that fiction is a form of escape and that dreams are wish fulfillment. Instead, these are stages on which we act out scenes of trouble in order to prepare us to meet it in real life.

At just under 200 pages, this is a quick read that touches on many, many aspects of story. Gottschall closes with a distillation of 11 takeaway points, which is very helpful. Among them are cautions to be aware of how easily we are manipulated by story as well as calls to allow ourselves the time and freedom to daydream. While there are many notes and an extensive bibliography, the author seems to rely a bit too much on anecdote when building his case, but as an introduction to the discussion of the role of storytelling in human life and history, this is a good place to start. 

To find out more, you can watch the book trailer here or visit the author’s website. This book is finishing up its blog tour and you can check out what other bloggers have said about it.

My review copy was provided courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


  1. Stories can definitely manipulate readers/listeners - I'm glad the author points out to readers to be aware of this fact.

    Thanks for being on the tour!