from The Hobbit, or There and Back Again
written and illustrated by J.R.R Tolkien
George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1937
“Why do you like to read?” someone asked me a while ago. I’m still thinking about my many-faceted answer. I read for entertainment. But I also read for information. I read because it’s a good way to protect my brain cells as I keep getting older. I read for relaxation. I read to validate my beliefs and to discover other peoples’ opinions.
In 2014, Keith Quesenberry a researcher at John Hopkins University, found that “[p]eople are attracted to stories because we’re social creatures and we relate to other people.” Our bodies produce oxytocin when someone is kind to us. It encourages us to cooperate with others by enhancing our sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.
Scientists measured the amount of oxytocin in blood samples of their subjects before and after showing them a James Bond movie. And, it turns out, stories we read or watch have the same effect as those we experience through face-to-face encounters in real life. The most effective story is one where the protagonist overcomes an obstacle or many obstacles to triumph in a satisfying ending. Joseph Campbell called this format “The Hero’s Journey.” It’s the basis for
the Biblical account of the trek from Egypt to the Promised Land, the Joads' journey from Oklahoma's Dust Bowl to California dreaming in The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck), Dorothy's desire to return home in The Wizard of Oz, (L. Frank Baum) and Bilbo's adventures in The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien).
After last week’s post about beginnings, I decided to re-read J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Actually, my car’s name is Bilbo Baggins. He is like me. We journey away from home reluctantly. We like other people, mostly. We believe in magic, mostly. We are optimistic, mostly. We always enjoy a good meal.
And we love to read. That’s Bilbo, the hobbit, not the car.
In his story, Bilbo, again the hobbit, not the car, is talked into going on an adventure to recapture stolen treasure that dragons and goblins took from Bilbo’s new dwarf friends. He reluctantly and surprisingly decides to join the dwarves and the journey begins.
Good stories are made of many intertwining elements. Many schools of thought define these elements in pretty similar ways. School Library's recent blog, “Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog,” lists Character, Plot, Information (which includes clarity, organization, and accuracy), Theme, Setting, and Style or Voice.
All these pieces work together, Lisa Cron tells us, in her book Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. Even if we are not planning to write a story, experiencing stories “allow[s] us to step out of the present and envision the future…Stories let us vicariously try out difficult situations we haven’t yet experienced to see what it would really feel like, and what we’d need to learn in order to survive.”
When we identify with the characters in a story or the people in a piece of well-written non-fiction, the oxytocin’s empathetic-component combines with dopamine and serotonin to allow us to actually feel what the characters feel and anticipate their actions and reactions. According to Lisa Cron again, “It is emotion, rather than logic, that telegraphs meaning…straight from the protagonist to us.”
According to Jonathan Gottschall, a Distinguished Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College, the purpose of stories is to teach us about life. Our storytelling minds work to make sense of our experiences. As humans, we constantly look for meaning and purpose in our experiences. If meaning and purpose are missing, we will create an explanation whether it’s a lie, a conspiracy theory, or a wishful, but inaccurate, memory. It’s the job of a story to teach us about life.
As young children, the line that defines what is real and what is “made up” is fuzzy. We learn about how the real world works by say, knocking a spoon off our highchair tray. That action teaches us many things. The spoon always falls down, never up. We see how one person’s actions influence another’s behavior when our big sister or mom or babysitter picks up the spoon and hands it back or tosses it into the sink. We learn how patient our care-giver is. Can we drop a spoon three times or thirty before we elicit an angry reaction?
We learn our mothers care about us when we change back from Wild Things into children and our supper is still hot. We learn how powerful our imagination is when we can draw ourselves in and out of adventures with just a purple crayon. We learn about the comfort and security of routine as we fall asleep to goodnight noises everywhere.
Dorothy Gale teaches us there’s no place like home every time we come to the end of her journey. We learn the depth of sisterly love when Katniss Everdeen steps into the spot drawn for Primrose.
Charlotte teaches us to trust the future as much as she does as we watch her spiderlings hurl themselves purposely into the unknown.
Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are
Crockett Johnson. Harold and the Purple Crayon
Margaret Wise Brown. Goodnight Moon
L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz
Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games
E. B. White. Charlotte’s Web
-—be curious! (and read with intention)