cover image The Storytelling Animal: 
How Stories Make Us Human

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

Jonathan Gottschall. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24 (272p) ISBN 978-0-547-39140-3

This at times cloying and circular extended essay—parts sociology, anthropology, psychology, and literary criticism—seeks to answer one of those sticky questions about human nature: why do we have a fundamental need for story? For Gottschall, who teaches English at Washington & Jefferson College, story serves an evolutionary purpose; it’s hard-wired into our brains. Story creation, like dreaming, helps us judge wrongdoing. It is also how we “practice the human skills of social life”—even if we don’t consciously remember the story and its lessons. Gottschall interprets “story” broadly: even the vagaries of memory are a form of fictionalization: false memories show how one’s past, like one’s future, is a realm of fantasy for which we are hard-wired. But Gottschall’s evolutionary argument is circular: we are hard-wired for fiction because it is good for us; and we are drawn to fiction because our brains are wired for it. Yet if the argument and approach are scattershot, the writing can be engaging. 74 photos. (Apr.)