Saturday, January 26, 2013
Book Review: THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL
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 apparently disparate things?
In his brilliant and engrossing The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall reveals the central, essential, and seminal role played by story -- or "Narrative," as I've called it -- 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 paramount in the culture. But over time, events and experience began to collide with that assumption. I began to wonder, for example, why people holding the same ideas, nominally, could live so differently -- and why some philosophies seemed to have more cultural traction and durability than others. I was introduced to the extraordinary power of stories when reading the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell. Aspiring to write fiction, I also became fascinated by how timeless, transcultural myths found their way into fiction and film. Building upon Campbell, "script doctor" Christopher Vogler even uses mythological archetypes to help craft hugely popular movies, and -- in his book The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers -- to school authors in the craft of fiction-writing. (Let me add that I employed some of these concepts in writing HUNTER; the novel's success is at least in part a testament to their validity and usefulness.) While conducting research on a nonfiction book project about the roots of the contemporary environmentalist movement, I also came to realize how certain ancient, mythic storylines served as the basis for modern ideologies and major religions. (Gottschall himself demonstrates this latter truth with his sobering account of the career of Adolph Hitler, who was inspired and guided decisively by the heroic operatic dramas of composer Richard Wagner.)
The Storytelling Animal touches upon all of this, and much, much more, drawing the kinds of interdisciplinary and personal connections that most of us would never make in a hundred years. Yet even so, I think Gottschall has barely scratched the surface of the far-flung implications of narratives and stories in our lives. To take just one example, I believe our current president has understood intuitively, and for years, the power of crafting a compelling "personal narrative" in order to launch and propel his political career to wildly improbable success -- and how he relied on crafting a similar "morality play" about himself and his opponents in order to win re-election in 2012. But that is just one of the important implications to be drawn from this extraordinary work.
Let me add that Gottschall himself is a wonderful writer and storyteller. A book that could have been an imposing intellectual chore and bore never flags for a moment in holding the reader and keeping him turning pages. So as not to distract or interrupt his own narrative, he sequesters a formidable array of endnotes and a vast, impressive bibliography unobtrusively, after the text.
I love books like this -- books that upend my previous understanding, books that augment my grasp of the world, books that draw breathtakingly unexpected links among apparently unrelated things. For all these reasons, I can't recommend The Storytelling Animal strongly enough. A joy to read and ponder, it's the most intellectually fertile nonfiction work I've read in years.