Storytelling … What’s the Point?

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storytelling animal

My life revolves around stories. I read them, I write them, and I spend my days selling them. Selling books is an uphill battle right now (ebooks, Amazon, recession, etc.), but still I trudge into work every day, determined to help someone find a story that will help them see the world differently.

Sometimes, getting so worked up about stories seems pretty stupid. Hardly anyone understands why I’m so passionate about my job, why I get so angry when people support the story-destroying behemoth that is Amazon. It makes me think that I’m being silly, too — that I’m fighting for something that isn’t really that important. After all, stories are just entertainment, right?

That’s what most people think, but it’s not what I think. I’m one of those cheesy true believers who thinks story is an important tool in seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Sure, story can be comforting and entertaining. But it can also shake us up and change our perspectives. It can give us new ideas or encourage us to stay true to our ideals. I think story can change lives. I think it can change the world. And, believe me, I often feel like an idiot for feeling that way.

Then along comes a book like The Storytelling Animal, which at the same time vindicates and encourages me. Author Jonathan Gottschall uses tons of scientific research to try to figure out why we tell stories, and then asks if they’re really all that important. He contends that the viewpoint of many scientists, that story is a non-useful hobby that serves no evolutionary purpose, could be wrong. Instead, the science seems to say that story teaches us, challenges us, and makes us a more cohesive society.

Yes, we each see ourselves as the hero of our own story. And, yes, that’s not a completely logical perspective. But it helps us believe that our lives are important, and we in turn fight to make them that way. And all that helps create better communities. (Well, usually. Gottschall also talks about the dangers of story — how they can drag us into wars, or create insurmountable resentments. We learn how powerfully Hitler was effected by story, and how his urge to turn himself into a great mythical hero led to so much destruction and suffering.)

Gottschall’s subject is scientific, but he also happens to be a beautifully compelling writer. The book was interesting and funny as well as informative. There’s lots of fascinating stuff about story, from dream research to child play to ancient myths.

Including this bit that I find particularly gratifying: Bookworm stereotypes aside, people who read fiction (particularly fiction, not just any books) are more socially adjusted than people who don’t. This isn’t surprising to me, as a frequent fiction reader who understands that seeing a story through another persons’ eyes helps you to look outside yourself in real life as well, to be more sensitive to what others are thinking and feeling. But it’s probably a surprise to all those haughty people who like to brag that they only read non-fiction. (Perhaps, if they picked up a novel once in a while, they wouldn’t come off as being quite so arrogant.)

This book is pretty wonderful because of the strength of the writing and the studies backing it up. But I loved it because it reaffirms my belief that story is important. Story helps us become who we are, and it helps to shape our societies. I know it’s helped make me who I am, and it’s why I fight for what I believe in. After reading The Storytelling Animal, that fight seems just a bit less futile.

Carrie Rollwagen is book buyer and co-owner of Church Street Coffee & Books.

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