Tag Archives: on the origin of stories

Why We Tell Stories: Some Recommended Reading

27 Sep

For those searching for the most effective way to lose weight, the most accurate advice is often the most sobering: eat well and exercise. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t heard this in one form or another, yet many—most—Americans struggle to reach their weight loss goals. The primary reason for this failure, I believe, lies in the individual’s lack of effort to research what it actually means to “eat well.”

As a young writer I was presented a similar reality: I’ll never become a good writer if I don’t read. With my choice to be a writer came my dedication to understanding narrative: I not only continue to read numerous works of fiction, news articles, literary journalism pieces, film scripts, digressive essays, editorials, and blogs, but I read about them.

This includes a wide range of studies and references: from the tedium of style manuals to the convolutions of literature theory. There’s a lot of them. Believe me. Just visit Virginia’s Woolf’s corner in the library—there are more books about her books than the ones with her name in the byline. And as far as style guides and manuals go? Forget about it. (MLA, Chicago, AP, APA, Oxford, Fowler’s, The Elements of Style, and many more.)

After reading a bit of what I know is good for me, I let my intellectual compass take over. Recently that dial has shifted my interest in storytelling from how to why.

Understanding our need for storytelling

Assertions about the epistemological power of storytelling are nothing new—they’re as old as Aristotle—but explaining this uniquely human function through academic disciplines other than lit theory or classic rhetoric studies (you know, the ones on the other side of the campus tracks, in the science department)  is exciting to me. It just feels very 21st century.

If you’re interested, here are a couple of  works to get you started:

 The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall

It makes sense that I needed help finding this at Barnes and Noble. Who would know to look for a book about the art of fiction in the anthropology section?

Right now this is the most popular book on the subject. In it Jonathan Gottschall draws his insight  from a wide range of concentrations—psychology, history, literature, neurology, biology, and pro wrestling—but it’s his fun and colorful writing style (in his New York Times review, David Eagleman calls it “jaunty”) that keeps me interested.

He engages me as a reader so well (by keeping me interested in the story of Man and Story), I forget that he’s trying to make an argument at all. The classic ingredients most Westerners—the most scrupulous being scientists—expect from an argument (claims, support, etc.) are there, but because they’re so cleverly embedded in layers of story we often might not notice them. Gottschall knows that we (as readers) will give his “ink people” life, filling in the blanks of his arguments, because—as humans—that’s what we do.

On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction by Brian Boyd

For a scientific civilian like me, this book stands in as a great survey course for everything evolutionary (evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, etc). Compared to Gottschall’s book, however, On the Origin of Stories takes some effort to get through—Boyd provides more thorough accounts of support.

While Boyd does spend ample time away from art and stories in order to earn not only the warrants for his claims but also the claims made by social scientists to explain human behavior through evolutionary concepts like adaptations, I find it worth the effort.

One of those claims comes from an evolutionary psychologist who predicts that in another half-century all psychology departments will have a portrait of Darwin on the wall—Boyd has me convinced that Mr. Darwin’s shaggy beard could adorn the offices of English professors as well.