7 (plus one) books about storytelling that really inspired me

In these strange days of forced isolation I am keeping myself busy offering webinars and online workshops on storytelling techniques. They seem to work quite well: a fun and interesting way to spend some time, for me and everybody else involved.

After all, people resorted to creating and sharing stories as a solution to quarantine many times throughout history. The Decameron, Frankenstein and Macbeth are examples of great stories inspired by such dramatic events.

Stories are an incredible source of learning, inspiration and fun. People who are able to create good stories – and know how to share them – seem to be somehow blessed.

But how to get good ideas? Inspiration can come from anywhere. From living in a stimuli-rich environment, to a wide knowledge base, to direct life experience coupled with the right attitude. And oftentimes, they just come from other stories.

So I decided to put together this shortlist of non-fiction books that inspired me as a storyteller and creator. I chose a diverse mix, from myth to fairy tales to science, because I hope this can attract the interest of many different people. And because it’s proven that there is an advantage in having many different interests. Creativity benefits from cross-pollination. 

On with the reading list!  

A Short History of Nearly EverythingBill Bryson 

Bill Bryson is a fantastic and prolific writer with a unique style, mixing humor and facts in his books about traveling, cultures and science. He is an excellent example of how to be interesting by knowing a little bit about everything – and knowing how to tell a good story. You can even watch Robert Redford play him in A Walk in the Woods.

In this book, Bryson explores the biggest questions we have, from the origins of the universe to how life emerged on Earth. It is really a book about life, the universe and everything. It’s nothing short of impressive how it can encompass archaeology, anthropology, geology, and the hardest discoveries of physics always keeping a very down-to-earth tone, and almost without breaking a (metaphorical) sweat.

The book contains a huge repertoire of scientific anecdotes, facts and information presented in a very clear way, plus it’s a lot of fun to read. It’s been one of the major inspirations for my Earth Walk experience.

Definitely recommended!

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari 

A good segue, from an actual academic. Harari is now getting hugely popular, with a TED talk under his belt and invites as a guest speaker everywhere, and it’s all well deserved. He may come across as gentle and well-mannered, but his ideas about society and past, present and future are strong and sharp.

This is his first best-seller, in which Harari spans the whole of human history, from the early origins to what made Homo Sapiens a power to reckon, often a destructive one.

It’s a book of stories, a concentrate of as many as possible inspiring anecdotes and facts about breakthroughs and discoveries, but it’s also 100% a book about storytelling: this is, Harari argues, the single human ability that shaped the world into what we know now. Our ability to create and share visions of reality, and collect incredible amounts of people and resources in order to achieve them.

I found it very well written and so smooth to read. While it stays solidly rooted in science and accurately presents sources and studies, don’t expect an academic treaty though: the goal of this ambitious book is to make content accessible and to present some personal views from the author. One can agree or not, but the arguments are persuasive. 

This book has had a major influence on my worldview, and shifted the way I approach the importance of stories in life.

If you like it, definitely consider also the sequel: Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow. It tackles our possible future instead of our history. As a consequence, I found it less inspiring, but not less thought-provoking.

On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftStephen King 

And now for something completely different. Written in 2000, this is a little special book in which Stephen King concentrates his memoirs and a lot of tips and tricks for aspiring writers.

Many chapters left a strong impression on me. I remember very clearly learning about the discipline necessary to pursue a career as a writer (any career, really); how important it is to endure rejections, failures and harsh critiques; and how fundamental it is to master the tools of one’s trade, and read, read, read. “If you don’t have to read, you don’t have time to write“. Well said, Maestro.

Success, turns out, doesn’t come as a happy coincidence. And we can take his word for it.

As a nice bonus, King also presents the reader with a large chunk of his personal memories, including a possibly fatal car accident that happened to him in 1999. Those tales – told by a master storyteller nonetheless – are a gift in an on themselves, for the casual reader and even more so for the hardcore aficionados.

Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide – by Henry Jenkins  

Already considered a classic of contemporary media science, this is a must-read for anybody interested in mass communication, digital landscapes, online and pop culture. I have to thank my friend and veteran colleague Michele for introducing me to the concept for the first time.

Jenkins, back then Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, explored in this book in 2006 some very interesting topics, such as the power shifts in the relationships between media and audiences; the rise of “fandoms” (even more relevant now that they have consolidated their power); the new ways to tell a story across several media platforms (transmedia storytelling), some of which are still in the process of unfolding.

In doing so, he analyzed successful tv programs and franchises like “Star Wars”, “The Matrix” and “Harry Potter”, so there is a lot of material fans will love. Yet, I confess I found the book heavy to read, maybe because it’s so reference-laden that each page feels like four. And some of its references feel outdated, it’s incredible how 14 years feel like 50 in the everchanging media world. But it’s undeniable that this is a landmark study in the field of media studies, incredibly well documented, a real master class from a mind capable of a wide and deep view of the landscape. Many of Jenkins’ ideas are instant quotes.

For example: “fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk“. Or, about his cautious optimism: “The politics of critical utopianism is founded on a notion of empowerment; the politics of critical pessimism on a politics of victimization. One focuses on what we are doing with media, the other on what media is doing to us”.

Read it, but beware, this can be a hard nut to crack. But very satisfying at the end.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark – Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan

Continuing with science education, I wanted to include something from Carl Sagan, and I chose this essay from 1997 which feels so fresh and necessary in our time dominated by fake news and anti-science conspiracy theories.

Sagan – who held among other honors a Pulitzer Prize for “The Dragons of Eden” (1977) – wrote this book with his wife Ann Druyan to warn about the importance of scientific education and critical thinking, necessary tools to keep democratic institutions and society healthy. Does it sound relevant? Because of course it does. And remember that this was written in the late 1990s.

Drawing many examples from history, science, and history of science, Sagan calmly dismantles pseudo-scientific arguments and superstitions of his time, and makes the case for critical thinking and scientific literacy as antidotes against unchecked ideologies and fanaticism of all types. This feels so needed right now, I almost feel as if the world has been going backward in the last 20 years.

Make no mistake, while some of the stories in the book may feel outdated, its arguments and the power of its reasoning are not. After all, every newspaper still has a horoscope section, often in the first page; scientific illiteracy is grossly displayed by “world leaders” on a regular basis; and research institutions are chronically underfunded.

If you love it, make sure you also check Cosmos – both the book and the tv series that in 1980 opened the door to science popularizing for millions of people worldwide.

The Blue Fairy Book – Andrew Lang

Again, a complete change of topic. This time we talk about traditional fairy tales. The anthropologist Andrew Lang translated to an easy and elegant English language (sometimes, adapting things a little) traditional fairy tales from a variety of European sources: the Grimm brothers, Charles Perrault, the Arabian Nights (One Thousand a One Nights), and so much more.

This book was just the first in a long and fortunate series that popularized classic stories bringing them to a wider audience in English language. A necessary read if you want to include these traditional fairy tales in your toolbox, or just for the enjoyment of children and adults. In the “Blue Book” you will find Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretel, Puss in Boots, Jack and the Giantkiller, Goldilocks, Aladdin, Cinderella, and many many more (37 stories in total). And beware: these are the classic versions, not many Disney Princesses are to be found here. 

If you like it, other books of the series include “the Red Fairy Book” (1890), with French, Russian, Romanian and Norse myths;  “the Green Fairy Book” (1892, with stories from Spanish and Chinese tradition); “the Yellow Fairy Book” (1894, with many stories from Andersen); and many more, including the Arthurian cycle, and tales from the Japanese, Scandinavian, Italian, Baltic, Arabian, African tradition, and more. The full list is here

Aristotle in Hollywood – Ari Hiltunen 

To end this list, I want to mention a less known runner-up that maybe is not up there with the bestsellers or made history (yet), but gave me a good experience nonetheless. I bought it at the bookshop in the fantastic Museo del Cinema in Torino, Italy, I read it in a couple of days, and I use a few of its concepts regularly in my courses.

This short essay is basically a summary of Aristotle’s Book One of Poetics – seen through the lens of contemporary Hollywood entertainment. How do major movie blockbusters follow Aristotle’s studies on drama and story? Quite well, of course. Hiltunen introduces in each chapter some key concepts from Poetics, and then goes on illustrating them with examples taken from famous movies. One chapter is also dedicated to modern theater, as introduced by Shakespeare.

All in all, it’s a study of the timeless, different forms of pleasure we can derive from storytelling. Don’t expect some revolutionary insight or a groundbreaking theory, but the title says it all: this is a good, easy to read summary that combines old and new understandings of how a good story works.

The many concrete examples from well-known movies really help to ground the theory elements.

The Ends of the World: Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past Apocalypses – Peter Brannen 

This is the titular plus one. A book I haven’t read yet, but it’s kind of next on my list. 

The science journalist Peter Brannen describes the latest discoveries about the five mass extinctions that have succeeded on Earth so far. Extreme climate change events, glaciations, poisonous gases, supervolcanoes, and of course the impact with asteroids: planet Earth has seen it all, well before we as humans started to make our first timid steps on its surface.

The good news is, life on Earth has always survived. The bad news is, the sixth extinction is underway right now, it’s caused by humans, and this time things could be different.

I am really excited to read it soon because I know it will combine my passion for research and natural history – I expect a lot of dinosaurs! – with a lot of anecdotes and interesting facts. It will be another great example of how to communicate science in an easy and engaging way. With a powerful message: the history of how life almost ended on Earth (five times) can teach us how everything we see on a daily basis is, in reality, fragile and beautiful and absolutely worth preserving.

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