From stories around the fire to full-length feature films and online games, this fun and informative read tells the story of us.

Disclaimer: This is a review, and as such will contain opinions, spoilers and (often) general shit talking. (If you talk about what you don’t like about a work, you learn a lot. When you think through a work with the stakes presented to you by the creator, by the context of the work, you learn a lot. I review things, not because I love to dislike things, but because dislike contains rich and vital information for the process of experiencing something, but I cannot access it without interrogating it.) So, if you don’t want to have this thing spoiled for you, or don’t know how to behave when a person on the internet, that you don’t know, has opinions that don’t line up with yours, this review is not for you. It’s also not for the author/creator of the work. Please and thank you.

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?

— “The Storytelling Animal” blurb

In The Storytelling Animal Jonathan Gottschall looks at storytelling from several perspectives. As an academic who understands the psychology and history of storytelling, Gottschall puts together his thesis — that humans are storytelling animals in the same way that beavers are dam-building and spiders are web-building animals— in a very readable, strong narrative.

This is also one of his points; that putting your facts (or non-facts) into a story makes them much more understandable, relatable and memorable, because we’re hardwired to understand story. Which we are, he’ll get no arguments from me.

Did you know that exposure to even just one short story or episode of a show can alter someone’s moral stance on an issue, or even alter the person’s results on a personality test?

Fiction is potent stuff.

Our brains are remarkably well adapted to understanding and remembering stories, and Gottschall doesn’t shy away from talking about how our brains are so attached to this that they will, in fact, misremember and forget things that don’t suit our preferred narrative, and fill in the gaps with convenient stories, even if those are total lies.

Gottschall’s hypothesis for lies is that the storytelling brain cannot abide a vacuum or a bad story. So, it makes up a better story, because on some fundamental level, we all know that the people with the best stories are the most convincing.

All animals communicate non-fiction; ants and snails leave pheromone trails, bees dance to show other bees where to find resources, monkeys screech when there’s a predator imminent, and most animals have some kind of ritualistic communication when it comes to signalling availability and finding mates.

But we’re the only animals that talk about people that have never existed, things that have never happened and will never be real.

And telling stories is something that is universal to humanity, whether it’s the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves or the stories cultures tell to explain the world around them, where there are humans, there’s storytelling.

Storytelling appears spontaneously in childhood and is nurtured through interaction. It’s a tool human children employ to learn about and explore the world in a “controlled” setting, practising the skills and preparing themselves for adulthood.

Fiction enhances social skills and enables us to hone our problem-solving skills. Fiction brings people together around moral codes, organises them into societies, bonds social groups and delivers an incredible amount of pleasure and satisfaction along the way.

In the last part of the book, Gottschall addresses an anxiety about us losing our ability to enjoy or engage with stories, busting down that myth in one fell swoop. If anything, as Gottschall points out, stories are stronger than ever and fiction isn’t going anywhere, it simply changes as advancements in technology allow us to experience stories in different ways than before.

As Gottschall points out, we are less in danger of losing our appetite for story, and more at risk of having it all-too-well-obliged, with fiction and story taking up more and more hours of the day, until there is little time left for anything else.

Gottschall romps through a huge range of psychology, evolutionary theory, anthropology, media studies, and even the sociology of online multi-player gaming communities in his analysis. But despite the academic author, approach and topic, it’s a well-written book that is interesting, entertaining and easy to read.

If you read, watch or listen to stories (you do) then I highly recommend this book. Especially, if you want to understand your own love of fiction better.

Fiction is what really sets us apart from beavers, bees ants and spiders. Without fiction, we wouldn’t be who we are.

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