Out of professional interest--first as a librarian, now as an editor--I turned to The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gottschall. Also I turned to it because the audiobook lasts only five hours and I didn't have much time for pleasure reading this week.
I liked the somewhat different approach here. There are tons of books about the joys of reading, and this is the first I've encountered that looks at the role of storytelling in human evolution. Though this is not a science text, I don't normally see this much science and psychology alongside my literary criticism.
Storytelling, Gottschall argues, is an adaptive trait that helps us practice conflict and novelty in a safe way--not only in the stories we consume deliberately, but also in the dreams we conjure at night. Stories communicate culture and values. Think sacred texts that unite members of religious communities.
Or think Peter Benchley's Jaws. Following the release of Spielberg's movie, beach vacations plummeted, thanks to the shared cultural understanding that sharks will eat you.
Recommended if you need a quick, diverting read that will flatter you for being more empathetic than people who do not read books. (The pro-social benefits of reading, especially with fiction, have been amply demonstrated in studies.)
Narrator Kris Koscheski was fine, but disclaimer, he's in that school of audiobook narration that applies accents to real people. For example, when he was quoting George W. Bush, he took on a Texas twang. I expect accents in my narrated fiction but they irritate me in narrated nonfiction.
A version of this post originally appeared on January 28, 2023.
George Saunders is in the very top echelon of my favorite writers. A literary fiction writer who leans hard into genre, he is arguably America's best contemporary short story writer, and his one novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, will stagger you. I'm getting into the yearly habit of reading him in January, to start the year out right. This year I read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. It is not short stories nor a novel but... literary criticism! Of Russian literature!
I know this is going to be a hard sell, but stay with me here. The book is just astonishingly good. It's like being in the best graduate level English class, only you don't have to write papers or read Derrida. Saunders helps us dive into seven masterpieces, helping us as readers articulate why we respond to the writing, helping us as writers study the craft.
This book was such a joy. I kept making excuses to get to the audiobook--and please, if you're going to read this, consider going that route. Saunders narrates the discussion, while actors read the stories:
When Covid first hit, I started doing book talks on social media as a way to keep in touch with people. I never got out of the habit. I don't discuss books by my clients, and if I don't like a book, I won't discuss it at all. While I will sometimes focus on craft or offer gentle critical perspectives, as a matter of professional courtesy, I don't trash writers. Unless they're dead. Then the gloves come off.