“The Storytelling Animal,” by Jonathan Gottschall | Quintillion Ink-Strokes

I can definitely see why this book was on the Free section in the English Department.


Jonathan Gottschall explains how the art of storytelling has always been prevalent and will continue to be so throughout human societies.


As for the outputs of creativity, Gottschall not only includes literature but also music and film. As for music, he makes it a point that it can be heard everywhere, whether they are full songs or jingles. At the end of the book, he notes that there had been controversies concerning the future of the novel in light of television and video games; the latter of which he notes comprises of a completely immersive escapism. He argues, however, that

Gottschall’s book centers around the premise of why exactly people tell stories, and what are the significance of dreams. He conglomerates interdisciplinary sources in order to answer that premise. As such, he proposes many reasons people tell stories. Through evolutionary biology, tell stories to display sexual preference, while the psychoanalysts argue that the dreams that inspire stories are awakened memories. However, he further notes that memory is not a perfectly accurate representation of the truth and can risk becoming fiction.

As for dreams themselves, Gottschall makes a recurring point that dream used within the context of a place to be desired is false, since most dreams tend to revolve around a conflict. Sometimes those conflicts evoke terror and are purely irrational.

Psychology plays a huge role in the book, as it is used to examine how people become creative enough to tell stories. Gottschall suggests through comparing artists to their own relatives that there is a genetic case for mental illness within creative people. Of course, I have seen that the connection between creativity and mental illness is not as simple as that. I definitely think what Gottschall is trying to insinuate is that creativity is the byproduct–and possible remedy–of mental illness. Nonetheless, throughout the book, he makes mention of experiments conducted involving the brains of either humans or cats in order to see how creativity functions. In the cause of neurosurgeon Michael Gazzaniga, he discovered, by splitting the corpus callosum which connected the two halves of the brain,that there were differences between the left (responsible for narrative) and right (focusing attention) sides, but the left side was more responsible for rationalizing laughter.

Since storytelling is universal, Gottschall makes it a point that every culture practices it and holds dreams as being in direct correlation with it. He makes mention of the !Kung storytellers who have an enormous amount of prestige within their own tribe, along with various literary figures such as Virginia Wolff and Edgar Allan Poe.

A central part of storytelling is the use of narrative, which is used not just in fiction. In the case of commercials, they are used to convince the viewer to buy the product. It is also used in flight simulators for aviation training by using computer-generated images of flights. He further notes that people have the tendency to create narratives, even when the events are completely unrelated. This is how conspiracy theories become prevalent, since they seek to create order when there is none in explaining the problems and tragedies that happen in society.

This would tie into the self as a never-ending narrative; often one that is usually greatly exaggerated. Gottschall mentions the notorious case of the Million Little Pieces controversy in which the memoir-writer lied about being a drug addict on the run from the law. In which case, the memoir genre would best be described as being truthful according to the writer himself as opposed to being hard truth.

Gottschall does not shy away from the moral implications of storytelling in society. As far as religion is concerned, as an atheist, he argued that religions function to keep society in order with laws, regulations, and–of course–the stories that captivate them and unites them within a single, narrative identity. This is the same for national identity, with the cases of Columbus “discovering” America and George Washington never telling a lie. They bring Americans together yet they are completely fabricated. As for media, he argued that it was inherently moralistic for the most part, with the protagonist being the hero who triumphs and the antagonist being the villain who fails.

However, since storytelling has so much morality, then it would stand to reason that they would influence society as a whole. Although Gottschall mentions how Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped inspire the abolitionist movement, he also mentions how Richard Wagner’s operas inspired Hitler’s nationalism–which in turn resulted in the rise of the Nazis. He makes note that literature can be like fire, in which it


Jonathan Gottschall teaches English at Washington and Jefferson College and has written for the New York Times Magazine, and Scientific American. He mentions his own daughters as examples of storytelling being prevalent during childhood. He constantly mentions his own reading and watching habits in terms of deciphering the storytelling process behind media such as the Disney version of Cinderella and Funny People starring Adam Sandler.

Writing Style

Gottschall describes the characters within the media as being ink people. Although they exist only within the text, they function to imbue upon the reader a sense of humanity.

Gottschall uses a lot of anecdotes about his own daughters through a storytelling perspective, as though to keep faith with the theme of his book, which is about storytelling. Not only those anecdotes, but also other hypothetical stories that he uses in order to make a point. However, I did find them a little distracting, especially if they took up more than one page. Nonetheless, I did see the point of what he was trying to accomplish, which was to bridge creative and scholarly work into a simulacrum of perspective on storytelling.

He also has a knack for putting subjects into perspective by juxtaposing them with other facts. When he mentions the number of World of Warcraft logged users, he compares them to the combined populations of Nicaragua and Norway.

Real World Application

Gottschall ends the book by making a call to read and watch more, that they do not constitute time wasted. It can definitely be argued that narrative plays an underrated role in societal structure, particularly when developing empathy and compassion among the readers.

As for the moral implications of literature in the case of Wagner, Gottschall did advice the reader to be skeptical of conspiracy theories. He does note that one such conspiracy theory is Holocaust denial, so that would include anyone who upholds Hitler as a figure to emulate. As for his own attachment to Wagner, if the implication that Hitler was inspired by Wagner, it would have to do with the fact that Wagner was himself ultra-nationalistic and anti-Semitic and the heroes in the operas were simply components of the simulacra that are autonomous of the real world.

In this way, these ink people are more like tutelage spirits, as opposed to mentors and teachers. Although they can be present whenever a reader needs to call upon them, they are not active to the rest of the world. Gottschall does not seem to elaborate on the role that these ink people have, rather insinuating that morally subversive works like Titus Andronicus and Lolita are the exceptions, while also stating that morally objectionable characters are prevalent in literature; nor does he make the case that the reader has autonomous responsibility for whatever works he is inspired by.

As for the relevance of the novel, as of the new decade, the novel genre is still available for purchase. Though the prevalence of video games would definitely become more immersive, as Gottschald predicted, particularly with Virtual Reality head-sets. Perhaps the holonovels would become a new technological phenomenon, as Gottschald and Star Trek: The Next Generation predicted.

Suggest This Book To…

  • Any story-tellers who do not work in the liberal arts field or have a liberal arts degree. This book would assure them that story-telling is not a waste of time, whether it has to do with writing or LARP-ing.


Gottschall, Jonathan. “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.” Mariner. 2013.

5 thoughts on ““The Storytelling Animal,” by Jonathan Gottschall | Quintillion Ink-Strokes

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