Vermont Reads 2015: Author Jonathan Gottschall On How Story Drives Our World

All this week, we're exploring the novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. The book is the Vermont Humanities Council's pick for Vermont Reads, the statewide community reading program.

At the heart of the book is Haroun, who tries to help his famous story-telling father, Rashid, who loses his "gift for gab" after his wife Soraya runs away with their neighbor, Mr. Sengupta.

Here's an excerpt from the book:

Mr. Sengupta ignored Haroun, but was always talking to Soraya, which Haroun didn't like, particularly as the fellow would launch into criticisms of Rashid the storyteller whenever he thought Haroun wasn't listening. 'That husband of yours, excuse me if I mention,' he would start in his thin whiny voice. 'He's got his head stuck in the air and his feet off the ground. What are all these stories?

Life is not a storybook or joke shop. All this fun will come to no good. What's the use of stories that aren't even true? Haroun, listening hard outside the window, decided he did not care for Mr Sengupta, this man who hated stories and storytellers: he didn't care for him one little bit.

Through the course of the novel, Haroun learns the importance of storytelling when all of the world's stories begin to dry up. The Ocean of the Sea of Stories is being slowly poisoned by a cult-master named Khattum-Shud. It's up to Haroun to save the ocean and bring the stories back.

The reader begins to consider whether stories are a kind of survival mechanism that helps humans adapt to the trials of life. And that leads to a question about whether the future of story is in jeopardy if people are reading less and less.
 

"Story is one of those things that infiltrates just about every thing that people do," says Jonathan Gottschall, author of 'The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.'
Credit Jonathan Gottschall

In his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, author Jonathan Gottschall argues that while screens have to some extent replaced traditional pages, story is still the force that drives our world. He spoke to VPR via Skype from Pennsylvania, where he teaches at Washington and Jefferson College.

Wertlieb: Why does story have such an importance in people's lives, even if they don't realize it?

Gottschall: Story is one of those things that infiltrates just about every thing that people do. We dream in stories, we learn and think in stories, we communicate and connect in stories. Story is just omnipresent in human life. The book gets in on this really ancient debate. The debate is really simple. It's, what's a human being? What sets us apart? One thing is typically left out of that debate — that's the way human beings live their lives inside stories. Man is the storytelling animal.

Wertlieb: I wonder if you can give us an example of this, and I think you talk about it in the book when you quote a psychologist and a novelist named Keith Oatley. He said that stories provide a kind of flight simulation for human life. What does he mean by that? 

Gottschall: Oatley has this idea of story as a virtual reality simulator, a way that we go into alternative universes and get to experience situations, perils, dangers that we would not necessarily experience in our ordinary lives. Another way of looking at this is through the lens of play. Animals play, especially the little ones. They have rudimentary pre-tense, they pretend to flee, they pretend to hunt. They pretend to be enraged, or terrified. Why? They're training up. They're learning the skills they'll need to survive and to thrive. Humans play too, especially the little ones. Children's make believe is dark, dangerous. It's complex. Why? Really, again, there's no great mystery here. Psychologists agree that the children are building their minds. They're rehearsing for the difficulties of adult life.

This is completely un-controversial so far. But now we take this little leap, it's that adults play at story too. Like Peter Pan, we never actually leave the land of make-believe behind, no matter how old we get. We love imagining the fictional struggles of pretend people. It's make-believe. And here's the question: Could this form of adult make-believe serve essentially the same training and rehearsal function that pretend play serves in children and in animals? The theory is that stories are so troubled, they're so saturated with problems and difficulties, because that's what they're for. They are for simulating problems and difficulties that we might face in real life. Trouble.

"Like Peter Pan, we never actually leave the land of make-believe behind, no matter how old we get. We love imagining the fictional struggles of pretend people." - Jonathan Gottschall, author

Wertlieb: And conflict, that's the essence of drama. And of course this dovetails nicely with your section on dreams. It's the same thing where we think that dreams are your chance, they're at night, your body is shutting down, you have a chance to rest. Dreams should be wonderful. Dreams should be a kind of escapism, and yet most of our dreams are fraught with peril or absolute horror sometimes.

Gottschall: Yeah. One of things that impressed me the most in my research was how predictable stories are. We think of stories as this wildly creative artistic genre, and in many ways they are. But no matter where you go in the world, no matter when you go there, you always find  the same thing, that people tell stories. And on the whole, their stories are exactly like ours. The same basic obsessions, the same basic structures. Everywhere in the world, a story is about a character confronting a problem and seeking to overcome it.

Stories are problem-solution structures. That's true of artful stories like you'll find in a novel, and it's also true of automatic forms of storytelling — the stuff that we'll find, for instance in dreams, and in children's make-believe. So children come out of the womb more or less designed to tell stories, and they already have the basic story structure, the problem-solution structure written into their DNA. And again, that's exactly what we find in dreams. Dreams are basically night stories. They focus on a protagonist, who's trying to overcome obstacles to get something that they desire. Because that's kind of what they're for: to give us a way of rehearsing and training for the difficulties you might face in life.

"Children come out of the womb more or less designed to tell stories, and they already have the basic story structure, the problem-solution structure written into their DNA."

Wertlieb: Jonathan Gottschall, you're a professor of English. And I find what's fascinating about your book is that you're making this argument, a really bold claim if you will, that the role of story is essential to our own humanity. But you must have noticed the trend in the last 20 years or so that things like language arts, English classes, history, all of the mainstays of a classic, liberal arts education are really being de-emphasized in favor of things like business degrees, finance. And I think your book may give a lot of hope to English and philosophy majors everywhere. But is it a false hope, given the way things have been trending? Especially in the United States.  

Gottschall: Well, there are two things that are happening. One is that the study of literature and the other arts is in decline. But the consumption of story is not in decline. What has happened in the digital age is not that story is being replaced by other forms of communication, but that people are using their sort of magical, digital devices to cram more and more and more story into their lives. So I think that the situation may be bleak for the people in the professions that are tasked with teaching literature and the arts. But I think that the situation for storytelling in general is as hopeful as it's ever been.

"What has happened in the digital age is not that story is being replaced by other forms of communication, but that people are using their sort of magical, digital devices to cram more and more and more story into their lives."

Wertlieb: This brings up my last question and it's about the future of story and storytelling. You know, we're looking at such advances in technology, and people are talking about, what happens if one day there's artificial intelligence that's created? Could our role as storytellers and consumers of stories be doomed by that sort of thing, by our technology outracing us? Or could it be completely in the other direction, where we're too immersed in story?

Gottschall: I think you need to think about human evolution. We evolved to be storytelling animals. And we evolved to be storytelling animals in an environment where story was incredibly scarce. Here's what you needed to do thousands of years ago if you wanted to hear a good story: You had to find a talented teller and get them to sit down and tell you that story. Story was very, very scarce. Now we live in an era of incredible story abundance. I'm holding an iPhone in my hand right now and through that iPhone I have access to nearly all of the world's stories right at the tips of my fingers. And so I do think there's a kind of worry that an animal that emerged in a time of story scarcity, and has a hunger for story that is appropriate to a time of story scarcity, suddenly finds themselves in an environment of incredible story abundance.

And in the book I try to compare this to what's going on with our hunger for food. So again, we evolved in an environment where certain nutrients — fat and sugar for instance — were very scarce, and now we suddenly find ourselves in an environment where those sort of nutrients are incredibly abundant and incredibly cheap. And this hunger for those nutrients that once kept us alive is now killing us off. You know, fattening us up and killing us young. And I do think there's a possible danger that we'll over-consume story in the same way. We have this greed for story that may be maladaptive in a world where story is so incredibly abundant.

Because stories have the potential to change the way people think, books have always been targets for censorship. While banned books aren't common in Vermont, there are still some stories for children that make adults uncomfortable. We'll tackle that issue Thursday when Vermont Reads: Haroun and the Sea of Stories continues.

Communities, schools and libraries around Vermont are doing events based around Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The deadline to apply is June 5. You can find more information at vtreads.org.