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Jonathan Gottschall

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9 Stories That Changed The World

Posted: 04/10/2012 9:31 am

A few years ago, I was driving down the road on a beautiful day, cheerfully spinning the FM dial. A country music song filled the cab: Chuck Wick's "Stealing Cinderella."

My usual response to this kind of catastrophe is to flail at the radio until the noise stops. But there was something heartfelt in the singer's voice, so I leaned back and listened to Wicks sing a story about a little girl growing up to leave her father behind.

Before I knew it I was blind from tears, and veering off the road to mourn the time--still well more than a decade off--when my own little girls would fly the nest. I sat there for a long time feeling sheepish and wondering, "What just happened?"

Who hasn't had a similar experience? When we submit to fiction--whether in novels, songs, or films--we allow ourselves to be invaded by the teller. The story maker penetrates our skulls and seizes control of our cognitive and emotional machinery. Chuck Wicks was in my head, squatting there in the dark, milking glands and kindling neurons. Usually, the effects of the invasion are fleeting and idiosyncratic. But when stories lastingly shape many minds-or just one very important mind--they can change the world.

My roadside meltdown inspired me to write a book about the mysterious power of story in human life: The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24). Here are some examples, taken from my book, of stories that have changed the world--in big ways and small, in good ways and bad.

Uncle Tom's Cabin
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When, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he famously said, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war." Lincoln went a little far in his flattery, but historians agree that Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) exerted a momentous influence on American culture, inflaming passions that helped bring on the most terrible war in our history.

Moreover, Uncle Tom affected international opinion in important ways. Uncle Tom was the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century, and the novel's overseas success helped ensure that the British, whose economic interests lay in the South, stayed neutral. If the British had joined the fight, the South might have triumphed.
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