Although fascinating at first, this book tries to do too much with too little space (199 pages). The first part—about children and make-believe—is fascinating. I would love to look up some of his sources just to discover more about the relationship between childhood and adulthood imagination… and I imagine it would be fun to read or write a book using folklore for children (like Maurice Sendek’s I Saw Esau) and folklore originally told by and to adults (which most people don’t realize is the truth behind the Grimm and other fairy tales) to try to help explain the thrill of a simple story… I suppose books like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Leon Tolstoy’s War and Peace represent a later development in storytelling, and then later James Joyce’s Ulysses and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Then the book might be good if it shot for something like 500 pages instead of an easily read, easily digestible, but far too shallow discussion of its subject.
I suppose at the heart of storytelling is the invention of language. Animals see, feel, perhaps even love. Yet they don’t record events because they don’t have our intelligence or linguistic abilities. One example in the book of “story” is equally nonsensical for animal and human: the dream. Dreams can easily be a seamless chain of events with no structure or meaning. That is why a dog may wag its tail, dreaming about some happy human or animal friend. Yet the writer of a book I plan to read, The Dog Master, records a (fictive) story of the bond between humanity and its canine companions. It makes the imaginative leap that our poor pets are not able to: to invent something which is not real. This is because the author cannot go in time to find the real man and the real dog who fell in love. He has to imagine it. And it is imagination that makes stories special. Apart, of course, from language. They can create things which are not real using linguistic devices. This is ironic for a book that expresses the reality of animal love and friendship on such a deep level.
I liked the insight of The Storytelling Animal that “trouble” is what stories are about and not peace. He insists this is true even in children. And that is why he should have stuck to “childish things.” He should have used stories to flesh out his theory rather than dreams or self-deception or memoirs or dungeons-and-dragons games. Why? Because they are only arguably stories. I would maintain that the first two require very little imagination at all. Yet this idea is expressed in the beginning of the book. Not in the iffy section about dreams as stories (need they be?) or how reality TV represents a new form of literature.
I hope this itself is not too cursory a description of the book… Looking over the article it took up too many of my ideas and not enough of The Storytelling Animal‘s. On the other hand, I could not find a binding thesis around which the book is formed… (though I hold that the system of writing where there is a thesis is more useful in the sciences than in literature or the arts But that is another matter.)