A newsmaker you should know: Country song inspires W&J prof to write the book on storytelling

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Driving his car on a highway on a bright autumn day, Jonathan Gottschall, 39, had an experience that affected him deeply. Flipping through the FM dial on his radio, he came across a country song by Chuck Wicks titled "Stealing Cinderella," and his mood changed from ebullient to sad in minutes.

"Normally, I'd quickly change the channel, but for some reason I listened," he said.

Captivated by the lyrics about a young man's visit to his sweetheart's father to ask for her hand in marriage -- stealing Cinderella, if you will -- he recalled he was moved to tears and had to pull off the road to recover.

"I sat there for a long time feeling sad about my own daughters, Abby and Annabel, growing up to abandon me someday," he said.

With a bit of follow-up reflection, Mr. Gottschall, an English professor at Washington & Jefferson College, began to wonder how deeply storytelling can affect our lives. His answer came in the form of a book titled "The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human," released April 10 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The book already has been selected by Oprah Winfrey for review in "O" magazine and for a review in the Wall Street Journaland featured in a live interview with Brian Lehrer on NPR affiliate WNYC.

"What I try to tell in the book is that humans are storytelling animals, an aspect of our makeup that is often overlooked by those who try to explain what separates us from other creatures," he said. "While our intelligence, tool-making ability and upright posture are important facets of our makeup, our uniqueness also comes by the fact that we live in a fictive environment and in various story lands."

Mr. Gottschall said we read novels, watch television and films, play video games, daydream throughout the day and create stories when we sleep through dreams. When our children play, they play at story creation.

"My girls happened to be 4 and 7 during the period that I was working on my book," he said. "This is the golden period of children's pretend play, and I was able to observe them spontaneously creating these fantastic wonder worlds with elaborate and dangerous plots."

A voracious reader as a child, Mr. Gottschall said he was an indifferent student but still able to "squeak" his way into Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y.

During his freshman year, his English teacher said he was good at writing and from that point on, he decided to go for a doctorate in English even though he'd read that only one in three English doctorates manages to secure full-time tenure at a college or university.

He met his wife, Tiffani, at Nazareth College and went on to earn a doctorate at Binghamton University, State University of New York in 2000. While a graduate student, Mr. Gottschall said he was bitten by the Darwin bug and spent half his time being advised by the university's evolutionary biologists and half by the classics department.

"The paradigm I've been trying to champion in literary studies is to use the theories of science and evolutionary biology and the methods and attitudes of science in order to be more objective," he said.

Now at Washington & Jefferson College, where his wife is a professor of economics, Mr. Gottschall continues his research using scientific methodology to better understand literature and the humanities.

"My work is somewhat controversial in that I argue that the humanities should draw more on the model of science," he said. "Generally, in the humanities, we're losing prestige and morale is low. I feel that one way out of the morass is to draw from the scientific model."

The author of six books, five of which have an academic focus, and two unpublished novels, Mr. Gottschall's "The Storytelling Animal" is the first he's written for a lay audience. In the immediate future, the book is slated for review in publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times Review of Books and Salon.

A review in the Boston Globe calls the work an "insightful yet breezily accessible exploration of the power of storytelling and its ability to shape our lives . . . [that is] packed with anecdotes and entertaining examples from pop culture."

neigh_south - neigh_washington

Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com. First Published April 19, 2012 5:45 AM


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