THE CREATING OF narratives are as essential to us as sleep. Stories in their many guises are as base and wonderful as sex, as delicious and irresistible as a cheeseburger ordered with everything. We tell our stories over countless cups of coffee in all the corners of the Earth; we unravel them on television in the minutes between commercials for detergent and disposable diapers. We call our stories the news; they commence as jokes or testimony offered under oath or this-crazy-thing-that-happened-yesterday, and sometimes we archly label them as literature. We project stories onto movie screens and we print them on the pages of books, and we simply cannot help but do so.
“What would we talk about, sitting around the fire at night, if we didn’t have language?” Melvin Konner asks in The Tangled Wing, remembering the rhetorical way in which his Brooklyn College mentor Dorothy Hammond would respond to the issue of the origin of language. We had to create language in order to shoot the fireside breeze, she surmised, only a little facetiously, and Konner can’t help but agree with her. Among language’s many tasks, it is the vehicle with which we tell our tales, and they–those tales in their simplicity and all their wonder—occupy the very heart of what it means to be human. Every story, even every sentence, Konner writes, “creates in the mind of the speaker as well as the hearer not merely a picture but a realm of intricate mental events encompassing all five sense modalities. Say what you will about nonhuman creatures—their admirable capacities, their behavior, their consciousness—there is not a thing like it in the whole of the animal world.”
We are the storytelling species, Homo once-upon-a-tempus, our brains built for seeking out relationships among things, for creating cerebral sorts of order, and for sensing the rudiments of narrative structure: how it was in the beginning, the middle, and at the end.