On the Origin of Stories

by Brian Boyd

October 3rd, 2009

We have long recognized that stories are important, that they tap something deep within the human mind. Boyd takes three cuts at the problem.

His first line of attack is by way of evolutionary psychology. Now, Boyd is an English literature professor, and I'm sure that other academics will be angry with him for invading their field and attempting to apply their knowledge to his field. Academics are childishly territorial in this regard. However, while Boyd doesn't dwell on the intricacies of evolutionary psychology, I was impressed with how well he has absorbed the findings of these scientists. I didn't notice a single misrepresentation of a tricky science, and what he did use was well applied.

His most striking conclusion is that art is a form of cognitive play. That is, if we apply the normal behaviors associated with play to cognitive processing, we get art. In effect, art is obtained by playing around with ideas. This is why art can take so many different manifestations. You can play with ideas via words, and come up with poetry or puns. You can play with sounds, and come up with music. You can play with images, and come up with painting. Art can be done with any medium in which people play with ideas. This, I think, is the most powerful and useful conclusion to emerge from this book.

Sadly, the good portion of the book comprise only the first half. The second half is supposedly an application of the ideas of the first half to two great stories:
The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who. While there is some connection between the theory and the examples, most of the material in the second half of the book is standard English lit analysis {Yawn}.

This is a lousy review of a deep book with many insights, because I finished the book months ago and didn't get around to writing this review until today.