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Book Review: The Storytelling Animal, by Jonathan Gottschall

Updated: Feb 24, 2022

I love books and always have. I love the paper, the feel, the small of books. I love the education, the thoughts, and the words. I love the stories. In 2012, I started listening to books while I did the housework to keep my mind from wondering to other things I needed to do that are more interesting than laundry, windows, and floors. I now have almost 500 books in my audible library, many of which I have listened to multiple times. Every night I ask Alexa to play an audible book for 30 minutes to keep my brain focused on the story instead of the wild ride it usually likes to take right when I need to sleep. Every night I wake up more than once and Alexa is always ready to play a book from my audible library so I can fall back to sleep.

When people ask me what music I listen to, a blank look comes over my face as I have no answer. You see, I listen to books. Both fiction and non-fiction, mostly fantasy novels with lots of sword fighting and blood, not sure what that says about me but Jonathan Gottschall might just have the answer to why I choose stories of struggle and fighting on a journey where the good guys don’t always win instead of choosing a good romance where everyone ends up with the love of their life in the end. Yeah. No. Give me Game of Thrones over 50 Shades and I don’t care if Bella chooses the Vampire or the Werewolf.

Back to the book I’m listening to, The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall. I’m interested in discovering what story says about the human species.

Stories tell us the values of people throughout history. I was a bit concerned about what the preschool children of this book had been exposed to considering the dark stories they were playing out at school. Then Jonathan reminds me about the stories parents used to tell their children back when fairy tales and nursery rhymes were first told. Protecting children’s innocence from the horrors of the world they live in is how contemporary parents raise children not how children were raised even just 60 years ago.

This book has barely started, and my mind is already filling with ideas, thoughts, and insights about what stories say about our society and culture.

The Trailer for the Storytelling Animal

The Storytelling Animal, by Jonathan Gottschall

This book is a A Editor's Choice

A Los Angeles Times Book Prizes Finalist

What Amazon & audible says

From the Back Cover

Humans live in landscapes of make-believe. We spin fantasies. We devour novels, films, and plays. Even sporting events and criminal trials unfold as narratives. Yet the world of story has long remained an undiscovered and unmapped country. Now Jonathan Gottschall offers the first unified theory of storytelling. He argues that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems—just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations. Storytelling has evolved, like other behaviors, to ensure our survival. Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology, Gottschall tells us what it means to be a storytelling animal and explains how stories can change the world for the better. We know we are master shapers of story.The Storytelling Animal finally reveals how stories shape us. “This is a quite wonderful book. It grips the reader with both stories and stories about the telling of stories, then pulls it all together to explain why storytelling is a fundamental human instinct.” —Edward O. Wilson

A jaunty, insightful new book . . . [that] draws from disparate corners of history and science to celebrate our compulsion to storify everything around us. New York Times

Who is Jonathan Gottschall?

Jonathan Gottschall is a Distinguished Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College. His writing at the intersection of science and art has been covered in-depth by The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Oprah Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Science, Nature, and on shows like Radiolab, Morning Edition, National Geographic's StarTalk with Neal de Grasse Tyson, and The Joe Rogan Experience.

I am expecting his book to be academic and intelligent due to his profession and entertaining due to his appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience for his other book about why men fight.... That is probably a very interesting read.

There is lots about Jonathan Gottschall on

the Internet, pages upon pages of information.

I wanted to know what bloggers, book reviewers, and journalists had to say about Jonathan Gottschall and his book, the Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human. Turns out they have a lot to say. Here are a few articles I thought gave some good insight into what I’d learn if I used an audible credit to add this book to my library.

Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human is a highly readable examination of the role of story in the human experience, revealing the nature and pure ubiquity of storytelling across all aspects of life.

The author, Jonathan Gottschall, delves into recent research on the brain and human behavior to show how storytelling has played a prominent role in our evolution.

Mr, Gottschall writes with a sunny, inquisitive touch, yet, a prominent theme is that stories are frequently dark, horrid affairs which dominate our dreams and commune with all manner of unsavory truths. He suggests that the naked terrors of children’s stories, full of abandonment, violence, and cruelty, serve as a virtual practice field for young humans to adapt to the brutal nature of reality. He then offers evidence to suggest that, once grown up, we humans use stories to codify morality – defining what is and isn’t acceptable tribal behavior – and to justify transgressions and sins both personal and national in scope.

Gottschall next examines the … Click here to read the full article

But why did humans develop the ability to tell stories instead of continuing to focus all their energy on tasks that would lead to more food?

Wouldn’t it make more sense that early humans would spend as much time as possible gathering food, building shelter, and reproducing instead of spending time telling stories? So far, no scientist has found the ability of storytelling in any other animal species aside from humans.

So why do humans tell stories? This is the question writer Johnathan Gottschall answers in his book, “The Storytelling Animal.” … Click here to read the full article.

This is of particular interest to me because I’ve been sketching hierarchies of various themes about the understanding of reality, including one of science fiction, and science fiction is of course a bunch of stories, narratives. If it’s a mistake to simplify everything about reality into narratives, how is science fiction useful for this understanding? Well, that’s a paradox to explore, but one way will be to consider the range of different types of science fiction stories, and why some are so much more popular than others, and why some that challenge that presumption are also popular, or notorious, because of anyone, science fiction readers are alert to challenges to common sense.

Summary with a few comments (with more comments at the end):

Ch1, “The Witchery of Story”. Children are creatures of story; they are always in Neverland. But story pervades adult concerns too, from pop music, dreams, daydreams, pro wrestling, opera, TV commercials. Trials are often matters of which side tells the better story. Gossip. Religious traditions. If there were two tribes, one practical, one story-telling, imagine how they spend their time, and which would win.

Ch2, “The Riddle of Fiction”. How children play pretend until a certain age. What are stories *for*? … Click here to read the full article.

Quote jonathan gottschall about story play and human social life photo of book on bed with roses

Audible Reviewers of The Storytelling Animal

When it comes to an audible version of a book, the narrator's performance is more important than the book itself. I think Tim Gerald Reynolds and Simon Vance could make the Book of Leviticus in the Bible interesting. There are lots of very talented audible readers and when it comes to picking fiction books to listen to, I will search out the voice before I search for an author. I want to know that I'll enjoy spending time listening to the person for hours on end and not having my nerves stand on edge as if nails are scraping an old fashioned chalkboard. A sound that Millennials and Gen Z will never know - Thankfully. Have we named Gen Z yet?

That's why I need to listen to books because my brain will go off on tangents at the drop of a hat.

So far, the reader, Kris Koscheski, is not butchering the book. He tries a bit hard with the voice changes for the odd character that speaks in the book, but it doesn't take away from the story. He's getting there, just needs more practice at getting the right voice

Here are some Audible Reviews that helped me decide if I’d use a credit to buy The Storytelling Animal. To read the original published review, click on the blue words:

I honestly got this book thinking that I would learn how to better tell stories. I was taken aback by how much depth the book went into the history, psychology, method, and adaption of our species and its need for story. While this book did not provide me with a blueprint for creating stories it has provided me with a new appreciation for the human mind, the need for story to teach better, and a deeper understanding of how other people may just be living their best life.

I downloaded this book hoping to gain a glimpse into why us humans are programmed to love stories, from passed down oral stories to binge-worthy seasons of true crime shows. While I hoped the book went into more reasons why, or at least explained the listed reasons more deeply, I was pleased that it did convincingly and concisely answer my questions. In the end, stories may seem to be a luxury of our modern state, but prehistorically, they were vital for basic human survival. This explains why we love them so much.

We humans crave narratives. From ancient fire circles to books to radio and movies to TV sets, headphones, and computers, "story is the glue of human social life." This short listen may not bring to light any really new concepts, but it offers interesting examples of how we use stories for education, entertainment, and reassurance that there is meaning in life. Gottschall also alerts us to reasons why we should be aware that this tendency also opens us up to the possibility of misinterpreting and being manipulated. We long for patterns and reasons - can conspiracy theories be far behind? I especially enjoyed the discussion about ways in which new technologies are changing how we tell and experience stories -- from so-called "reality" shows to interactive and role-playing computer games. The narrator is OK, but I wonder why he felt he had to deliver some quotes in quite bizarre accents. The book starts slowly but picks up in energy and interest as it goes along. I think most people interested in books and psychology will enjoy it.

Most of this book is solid, it is a solid resource to get an overview and find more in-depth researchers. It has a fairly US centric bent and the final chapter and conclusions are a bit simplistic and preachy. NOTE: No one in the games industry or around it says MMORPG as “more-peg,” whoever told the author they do was pulling their leg.

As a student of cognitive science and storytelling, this book tied a lot of my interests together and brought me to a higher level of understanding about story. It was well written and researched - not pseudo science or pop psychology like so many books are these days - and though it's not at all a self-improvement book, the ideas it shares will will help you improve yourself.

Amazon Reviewers who did not like The Storytelling Animal

Bad reviews are a good thing for both authors and readers because it helps readers understand the book from a different perspective to determine if the book will interest them. For authors, it keeps readers who probably won't like their book from reading it and writing another bad review.

Here are some bad reviews I found about The Storytelling Animal, which tells us what these people didn't like about the book and what they had expected to get when they purchased it. Bad reviews come from unmet expectations. The clearer an author can be about who the book is for and what it is about, the fewer bad reviews they will have.


this book was awful, dull, poorly referenced, poorly argued, poorly foot-noted, and gave HUGE sweeping statements throughout, such as "children adore art by nature not nurture" (p23). This statement, and many more, had no background information or further explanation. They were just stated as fact. From the review I imagined I would be reading an interesting and serious book about storytelling (a big interest of mine, and graduate subject), which uses referencing, argument, and evidence to come to conclusions. This book is based on speculation, gossip and heresay. A thorough disappointment and waste of money.

Martin Rinehart

I'm trying to learn to write fiction. Have three books on the 'science' of storytelling. God knows it would be useful to understand what engages the reader, how to make a story compelling, ... Well, God may know but the scientists who study these things are a long way from knowing. It reminds me of when Freud called compulsive behavior 'anal.' He invented the 'anal period' and went off from there. Pure invention. We all should have been skeptical. The 'science of storytelling' is about at that stage. Stay skeptical. These thoughts apply to Cron's Story Genius Storr's The Science of Storytelling and Gottschall's Storytelling Animal

Amazon Customer

I'm not sure why this book has such favorable reviews. I honestly found it kind of bland and boring after the first 2 chapters. There's a lot of meandering, and the book could have been summarized in a much shorter fashion. I came across this book on multiple "must read if you want to tell better stories" lists. I have no clue why. The only takeaway I got is that stories center around some sort of trouble... Well, if you're looking for an anecdotal book that cites evolution as the WHY for everything, then this is your book. But if you're looking for a book that actually analyzes great storytelling techniques and HOW you can become a better writer, then look elsewhere. Also, I'm not sure if the author was going for some sort of charming, playful tone, but he mainly just came off as snarky and sarcastic--especially when it came to topics he doesn't align with. I could easily sense his bias.

Quote by jonathan gottschal about dreams and story photo of brown puppy sleeping

Amazon Reviewers who did Like The Storytelling Animal

There were plenty of good reviews about The Storytelling Animal. When reading reviews look for details that will tell you why you will either like or not like the book. Reviews are a good way to understand what to expect from a book and thereby, reading books you enjoy instead of spending money on stuff you aren't interested In reading.

This well-organized and pithy book was a pleasure to read. I already find myself reading parts of it aloud to kith and kin

Conor Matthews

Excellent and incredibly fascinating. If "Story" and "Save the Cat" are how-to guides for writers,

this is a Bible for writers as it details the why, how, when, and where we enjoy stories of any kind. The first few chapters are general looks at the science of fiction, while the later chapters are more focused on specific issues. One such chapter acts as a sort of explanation for conspiracy theories and why so many people believe them. The book never judges people, but rather respectfully examines them as living out their own narrative (a concept explained in the book). For aspiring writers, this is your new Tao Te Ching. For Psychology types, it is no less interesting to see how human beings make sense of reality by believing in the fictional. And for everyone else, it's still an amazing exploration through society, the brain, history, and our own imagination.


This is a scholarly work. But it does not bore one with jargons. The style is lucid and entertaining. It seeks to answer why we, the homo sapiens, go on loving stories. It explores the uses, and misuses, of stories. The writer's familiarity with different branches of knowledge enables him to present a cogent argument. I consider it a must read for all students and professors of literature.


Jonathan Gottschall's book is a true jewel for those like me work as copywriter and storyteller. It opens your mind and show you a new perspective. It is witty and intense! Wonderful reading!

Rob Chatfield

Gottschall maybe overplays a bit the importance of story to make his point, but it's nevertheless as fascinating read, covering many different forms of story across fiction/novels, myths and legends, religious stories, dreams, memories, etc explaining how powerful stories can be to change history, and touching on memory and neuroscience and how our brains are "formatted" to create, transmit and receive information in the form of stories. He makes a compelling case, I really enjoyed reading the book, and have thought about aspects of it a fair few times since then.

A Balanced Review of the Storytelling Animal from The

To read the original review and others for the Storytelling Animal, click the blue words:

The mass market, highly accessible style works very well to make one dwell on a few very profound points and allow them to sink in... - that we live in an emotional world, not a rational one - that we are designed to communicate in story form and that our minds are designed to receive and store information through story - that our minds do not distinguish between fictional stories and factual ones - that a certain amount of delusion is, in fact, a sign of psychological health ...but strays in its casual propagandising for Israel and in its glib treatment of conspiracy theories (which deserves a more complex and detailed treatment in the age of whistleblowers and declassified data from the past). Instead of closing with a reflection on some hypothetical future in which the power of storytelling becomes a curse, he might have done better to emphasise storytelling's present power, the ability of that power to be used for both good and ill, and with the invention of a kind of story hygiene. Such a "story hygiene" might emphasise a kind of mindfulness about what textual, audio and visual stories we produce for others' brains and allow into our own. That way, we would develop personal and collective responsibility for creating and curating the stories we allow in - whether the stories originate externally or internally. Instead of distinguishing between the present and a future in which we excessively escape into virtual worlds, he might have done better to distinguish more thoroughly between collectively ethically positive and collectively ethically negative story habits. One could have brought together all the disparate parts of the book in order to deliver something much more meaningful. This book is sold as offering "the first unified theory of storytelling." Except it doesn't. There is very little in this ecclectic and fun book that I would describe as either unified or theory. It didn't have to be that way.

My take on the Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gotschall

If like me you enjoy books that tell stories about research studies along with personal stories to reinforce a point, you’ll enjoy this book.

He does cover a wide swath of information about storytelling. He goes all the way back to before recorded history to explain how story was used by humanity over time. This is why I enjoyed studying literature so much, it reflected the values of society at the time to give contemporary readers a better understanding of what life was like and what mattered to them.

I think it is important to judge history through their values system instead of our own. In the future others will look back on our plethora of content posing as stories and judge us based on their enlightened points of view. No one likes to be judged, especially by an enlightened person who doesn’t understand the cultural values of the society the story reflects.

ooops I did it again ... another journey down a rabbit hole. Back to the book The Storytelling Animal

I didn’t hear anything new or groundbreaking while I listened to the audible version. I probably missed it when I was doing something else. I listen to a lot of books about stories and how our brains work, so I have a good understanding of the topic. It was still good and I’ll listen to it a few more times as I work. It is a top choice for anyone who wants a scientific deep dive into how we react to story, without getting bored because it’s told through stories.

Looking for another book? Check out these other reviews.

Other Book Reviews on APeeled

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"Prepare to Break Some Glass."

"Most will agree that traditional business models have been built on a hierarchy of systems and titles. These vertical structures place responsibility at the top and cast long shadows of confusion on the subjects below. To achieve the speed and competitive edge necessary to respond to changes in any business market, we must replace glass ceilings with glass floors providing a total perspective on our surroundings."

This is how the book Six Degrees of Impact by Anthony C. Gruppo Sr and Monique ter Haar starts. It is filled with real advice to help leaders see how to lead from a different point of view. Their minimalist style means there is no distracting fluff and almost every sentence is a great quote on its own. It is designed with short thought provoking chapters / sections that enable a reader to quickly digest an idea and move on with their day until they have another 5 - 10 minutes to read the next idea. So, you could read a chapter before driving on your daily commute and by the time you got to work, you'd have a new idea about how you can lead your team better.

Ditch the Act

Let’s get the elephant out of the room shall we, Why am I including Ditch the Act in the same issue I am launching Pusher’s of the Possible?

The answer is...drumroll... It’s a good book and ties in to what APeeling is all about, Creating an appealing brand story.

Plus, the topic fits this issue of APeeling perfectly, wouldn’t you agree?

I wish I had helped them write and publish this book because it reflects what MarketAPeel does. Their story of going through the mudpit of life and finding their own unique way to success is the type of story I want to help tell. However, considering Leonard is a talented writer and Ryan has the skill to take it to the next level, these two hardly need my help marketing, promoting, constructing, or taking the time suck of writing off their plate. They’ve got this - in spades.

Excerpt of the Book The Digital Nomad Lifestyle Guide

Is the laptop lifestyle for you?

Let’s dig a bit deeper to make sure you are on the right path. This probably goes without saying, but people who choose this lifestyle typically enjoy travel.

However, this was the case before early 2020. The vast majority of remote workers have recently been forced into this lifestyle and probably were not offered the luxury of picking the destination.

When traveling is again accessible, this inherently brings certain pros and cons. It means having a minimalist mindset and narrowing down what you need for your day-to-day living. You’d be surprised by how little you need to be happy. Think back to various vacations you’ve had throughout your life. Did you pack too much or not enough? During the very rare times I forgot something it was just as easy to buy the item.

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