Stories sustain us
and keep us coming back for more
For most of human history — for many tens of thousands of years — if you wanted a story, you had to find a good teller and convince her to sit down and spin you a yarn. Up until the invention of writing, about 5,500 years ago, storytelling was an exclusively oral art, performed by tellers or actors. For thousands of years after that, the written word was captured in hand-lettered manuscripts, a luxury item only rich people could afford. It wasn’t until the 15th-century invention of the mechanical printing press that the price of the written word began to fall, and ordinary people could afford to buy and read mass-produced stories.
In other words, up until a few hundred years ago, our ancestors lived in a world where story was relatively scarce and expensive. But today, I carry a silicon-stuffed gizmo in my hip pocket — a smartphone — that gives me effortless and instantaneous access to all of story land. The gizmo is a portal to all the riches of the world’s novels, poems, plays, films, TV shows and YouTube shorts. It allows me to listen to all the stories people sing in songs, and to marvel at all the stories painters have spread across canvas or sculptors have carved in stone. My gizmo gives me access to the interactive stories of video games — which allow me to be the hero of the story. It even gives me access to all the personal life stories people are gradually spinning — day by day, post by post — on Facebook and Twitter.
Today, story is so inexpensive and so accessible that we could easily spend our whole lives cruising around in story land, without ever consuming the same story twice. And many of us very nearly do. The average American spends several hours per day consuming stories through TV screens alone. And most of us spend many more hours listening to stories in song or playing at story in our video games or even reading stories in actual paper books.
Story is a good thing and not just because it pleasantly passes the time. In my book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, I review psychological research showing that a generous diet of story is good for us: Story enhances our ability to empathize, it teaches important information in memorable ways, it bonds people around the same myths and moral codes, and it gives us a wealth of vicarious experience. (What’s it like to confront a powerful man? What’s it like to try to seduce his wife?)
Story, in short, is one of the best things in life: It gives us enormous pleasure, while making us all wiser, smarter and better able to feel.
But you can have too much of a good thing. Compare story to food. A tendency to overeat served our ancestors well when food shortages were a predictable part of life. But now that we modern desk jockeys are awash in low-cost grease and corn syrup, overeating is more likely to fatten us up and kill us young. Likewise, it could be that an intense greed for story was healthy for our ancestors, but has some harmful consequences in a world where books, MP3 players, TVs and iPads make story omnipresent — and when we have, in romance novels and TV shows such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians, something like the story equivalent of deep-fried Twinkies. I think the literary scholar Brian Boyd is right to wonder if overconsuming in a world awash with cheap story could lead to something like a “mental diabetes epidemic.”
So what should we do? Maybe it would help to treat the stories we consume more like the food we eat. We all recognize that, hard as it may be, if we are not disciplined about our diets, we will get fat and sick — our lives will be shorter and of lower quality. I think we should cultivate a similar attitude toward story. Now that we are surrounded by junk story in the same way we are surrounded by junk food, we need to resist a dumb confection of a TV program in the same way we resist that deep-fried Twinkie at the fair. Flipping on the TV to channel surf is like standing in front of an open refrigerator and aimlessly stuffing food in your mouth. Instead, plan out a Netflix strategy. Plan out a novel strategy (I like to work my way through good Internet lists of classic thrillers, sci-fi, mysteries and canonical classics). Consider spending less time with the dirty, fast stories aggregated at BuzzFeed (the site’s very name suggests a cheap high) and more time digesting the deep, careful writing aggregated at Longform.org. If you DVR the good stuff (I like Mad Men and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and pass on the Honey Boo Boo marathon, you’ll respect yourself more in the morning.
Of course, ideas about what counts as a healthful story will vary (Always Sunny is too crass and brash for many), and I certainly succumb, now and then, to the urge to catatonically channel surf or to binge out at BuzzFeed or Gawker (there’s no preacher like a sinner!). But I think that’s OK. Even the strictest diets usually allow for a “cheat” day.
Gottschall teaches in the English Department at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., and writes a blog for Psychology Today about the mysteries of storytelling. His latest book is The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.