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The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human [Kindle Edition]

Jonathan Gottschall
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (140 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Humans live in landscapes of make-believe. We spin fantasies. We devour novels, films, and plays. Even sporting events and criminal trials unfold as narratives. Yet the world of story has long remained an undiscovered and unmapped country. It’s easy to say that humans are “wired” for story, but why?

In this delightful and original book, Jonathan Gottschall offers the first unified theory of storytelling. He argues that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems—just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations. Storytelling has evolved, like other behaviors, to ensure our survival.

Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology, Gottschall tells us what it means to be a storytelling animal. Did you know that the more absorbed you are in a story, the more it changes your behavior? That all children act out the same kinds of stories, whether they grow up in a slum or a suburb? That people who read more fiction are more empathetic?

Of course, our story instinct has a darker side. It makes us vulnerable to conspiracy theories, advertisements, and narratives about ourselves that are more “truthy” than true. National myths can also be terribly dangerous: Hitler’s ambitions were partly fueled by a story.

But as Gottschall shows in this remarkable book, stories can also change the world for the better. Most successful stories are moral—they teach us how to live, whether explicitly or implicitly, and bind us together around common values. We know we are master shapers of story. The Storytelling Animal finally reveals how stories shape us.



Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Jonathan Gottschall on The Storytelling Animal

What is the storytelling animal?
Only humans tell stories. Story sets us apart. For humans, story is like gravity: a field of force that surrounds us and influences all of our movements. But, like gravity, story is so omnipresent that we are hardly aware of how it shapes our lives. I wanted to know what science could tell us about humanity's strange, ardent love affair with story.

What inspired you to write this book?
I was speeding down the highway on a gorgeous autumn day, cheerfully spinning through the FM dial, and a country music song came on. My normal response to this sort of catastrophe is to turn the channel as quickly as possible. But that day, for some reason, I decided to listen. In "Stealing Cinderella," Chuck Wicks sings about a young man asking for his sweetheart's hand in marriage. The girl's father makes the young man wait in the living room, where he notices photos of his sweetheart as a child, "She was playing Cinderella/ She was riding her first bike/ Bouncing on the bed and looking for a pillow fight/ Running through the sprinkler/ With a big popsicle grin/ Dancing with her dad, looking up at him. . ." And the young man suddenly realizes that he is taking something precious from the father: he is stealing Cinderella. Before the song was over I was crying so hard that I had to pull off the road. I sat there for a long time feeling sad about my own daughters growing up to abandon me. But I was also marveling at how quickly Wicks's small, musical story had melted me into sheer helplessness. I wrote the book partly in an effort to understand what happened to me that day.

But don't you worry that science could explain away the magic of story?
I get this question a lot. The answer is "No! A thousand times, no!" Science adds to wonder; it doesn't dissolve it. Scientists almost always report that the more they discover about their subject, the more lovely and mysterious it becomes. That's certainly what I found in my own research. The whole experience left me in awe of our species--of this truly odd primate that places story (and other forms of art) at the very center of its existence.

Children come up a lot in this book, including your own children. . .
Yes, I spent a lot of time observing my two daughters (in this I took my cue from Darwin, who was a doting father, but not shy about collecting observational data on his large brood). I got lucky. My girls happened to be 4 and 7 during the main period that I was working on my book. This is the golden period of children's pretend play. And I was able to observe them spontaneously creating these fantastic wonder-worlds, with these elaborate and dangerous plots. I noticed that my girls spent almost all of their awake time in various kinds of make-believe. And I was invited to enter those worlds myself, to play the roles of princes and Ken dolls and monsters. I learned a lot about the nature of story from my girls. Story and other forms of art are often seen as products of culture. But this perspective is one-sided. Story blooms naturally in a child--it is as effortless and reflexive as breathing.

Are dreams a form of storytelling?
Yes, they are. Dreams are, like children's make-believe, a natural and reflexive form of storytelling. Researchers conventionally define dreams as "intense sensorimotor hallucinations with a narrative structure." Dreams are, in effect, night stories: they focus on a protagonist--usually the dreamer--who struggles to achieve desires. Researchers can't even talk about dreams without dragging in the basic vocabulary of English 101: plot, theme, character, scene, setting, point of view, perspective. The most conservative estimates suggest that we dream in a vivid, story-like way for more than six solid years out of a seventy-year lifespan. So dreams are definitely part of the evolutionary riddle of storytelling.

What is the future of story?
In the digital age, people are reading less fiction, but this is because they've found new ways to jam extra story into their lives--on average we watch five hours of TV per day, listen to hours of songs, and spend more and more time playing story-centric video games. I think we are seeing, in video games, the birth of what will become the 21st century's dominant form of storytelling. The fantasy lands of online games like World of Warcraft attract tens of millions of players, who spend an average of 20–30 hours per week adventuring in interactive story. Players describe the experience of these games as "being inside a novel as it is being written." In upcoming decades, as computing power increases exponentially, these virtual worlds are going to become so attractive that we will be increasingly reluctant to unplug. So the real danger isn't that story will disappear from our lives. It is that story will take them over completely.


Review

"Gottschall brings a light touch to knotty psychological matters, and he's a fine storyteller himself." ---Kirkus

Product Details


Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
64 of 70 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Power of Storytelling . . . Excellent, Must-Read February 24, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
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: The Storytelling Animal 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.
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38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Left wanting more... March 15, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
The Storytelling Animal was a fun read, but not the must read I was hoping for. I didn't find anything surprising, or experience any of those WOW moments, when the author brings forth an insight that I had never considered. What I did find interesting was how the author brought all of the different forms of story together. He presents a comprehensive picture of how story permeates every aspect of our lives, and does it in a way that is very readable.

I was familiar with much of the evidence presented in the section of the book dealing with the importance of story in child development. It was an effective presentation, but I was hard pressed to find any new conclusions to draw either from the studies cited or the anecdotal evidence provided.

Perhaps my favorite parts of the book were the ones dealing with our own personal narratives. Our eternal quest to make ourselves the protagonist in our own story, and the unreliability of memory made for interesting reading. Looking at these aspects as merely different forms of storytelling was intriguing and I wanted more information. Unfortunately, not enough was provided.

This was a well written, quick read that will whet the appetite of fiction lovers such as myself, but in the end was kind of insubstantial. I was hoping for something to challenge the common conceptions, and instead experienced a gentle reinforcement of quite a few things I already knew.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book April 19, 2012
By Artem
Format:Hardcover
A nonfiction book about story and its structure that artfully follows the structure of fiction. Gottschall writes with the authority and smarts of the best nonfiction writers and with the art and command of the best fiction writers. Gottschall's book is far and away my favourite book of the year and I look forward with anticipation to his next undertaking.

"The human mind was shaped for story, so that it could be shaped by story." Gottschall writes, as he subtly tells the reader what he is doing to us, "literally" shaping us with his story and letting us all in on the secrets of all storytelling animals.

The science is fascinating and the topics are well researched. I particularly liked the studies on mirror neurons and how it applied to our love of story.

I wish that I had a book like this in my English classes growing up. A book that made me examine myself as a reader/storytelling animal(something that was long overdue), so that I could better examine what I read.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Most intellectually fertile book I've read in years January 26, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
As both a nonfiction author and a bestselling novelist, I've pondered certain puzzles for decades.

Why do people find certain ideologies and philosophies appealing, but not others? Why do we so often hold to our points of view dogmatically, intractable to all facts, reason, and logic? What is the source of dreams? Why do certain common myths seem to be indelible and universal, across cultures and throughout history? Why does music conjure in us mental imagery? What is the key to the kind of motivational commitment that impels some people to face and triumph over incredible odds and obstacles? Why do we find certain people, at first glance, overpoweringly attractive, and others repulsive? Why do we love some books and movies, and hate others?

These and many other mysteries of the human mind and personality are central to the concerns of the artist, psychologist, historian, or person plying any field of communication or persuasion. But is there anything that links together all of these seemingly disparate things?

In this brilliant and engrossing book, Jonathan Gottschall reveals the central, essential, and seminal role played by STORY -- or "Narrative" -- in human thought, action, and culture. Moving with seemingly effortless creative ease from riveting personal anecdotes to abstract sociological theories, from baffling historical phenomena to intriguing psychological experiments, Gottschall offers a key to understanding much that has baffled man throughout the ages.

For decades, I had believed that philosophical ideas and ideologies reigned supreme in the culture; but over time, events and experience began to collide with that assumption.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Fair Intro to the Topic...Strong Genre Sensibility
Another problematic book to review.

There is at least one factual problem. Mr. Gottschall argues the Holocaust was the worst genocide in history---wrong! Read more
Published 3 days ago by David S. Wellhauser
2.0 out of 5 stars Two Stars
Not exactly what I expected.Did not live up to promise.
Published 1 month ago by Harold Barrett
1.0 out of 5 stars Very disappointed.
Go ahead, rate this review as "not helpful," but I was very disappointed by this book. I was looking for a book that helped me become a better story-teller. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Carl Brown
1.0 out of 5 stars The "Unsolved Mysteries" of storytelling literature.
In the Emperor's New Clothes, the king pays a pair of con artists handsomely to sew for him the finest clothing in all the country. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Rachel Nabors
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
A fascinating read.
Published 2 months ago by Sims G. Weymuller
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended
Our narrative needs and experience are receiving more and more recognition, from Alisdair MacIntyre, who used, some years before, this book's very same title in a description of... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Barry McKenna
5.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful read
What a nice book. I really didn't have any great interest in the meaning behind why humans tell stories, and how it's all so interconnected, but Gottschall has crafted a thoroughly... Read more
Published 3 months ago by earlebrooks
1.0 out of 5 stars Shockingly Misogynist
I was shocked by the misogyny in this book. Not only does the author ramble on about how all girls want to be fairy princesses, and all boys want to be pirates and robbers, he... Read more
Published 4 months ago by providence
4.0 out of 5 stars interesting read
this was a pretty interesting book , I would definitely recommend this book to a few friends who are writers.
Published 5 months ago by TaySymone_
5.0 out of 5 stars Jonathan is the traffic cop at the Intersection or Myth, Story, and...
I recently took on the position of Story Evangelist for a company that sells Hollywood movie clips (Reel Potential - shameless promotion) and I started to delve deeper into the... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Lorne Epstein
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More About the Author

I teach English and write books at the intersection of science and art. My work has been featured in outlets like The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, Scientific American Mind, New Scientist, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nature, Science, BBC Radio and NPR. I live with my wife and two young daughters in Washington, Pennsylvania.


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