Everyone knows the sensation of getting lost in a story. This doesn’t happen by accident. For thousands of years, storytellers have utilized a specific technique to pull audiences in. The technique, which Angus Fletcher calls a “literary invention,” is to stretch elements of a story to make them larger than life. A normal person becomes a hero. Regular objects become metaphors. Colors are made brighter. Trees are made taller. Etc. “The stretch is a simple device,” Fletcher writes, “but its effects on our brain can be profound. …The stretch has been connected by modern neuroscientists to significant increases in both our generosity and our sense of personal well-being.”
The stretch is just one of 25 literary inventions identified by Fletcher in Wonderworks. Each invention helps people live better, healthier lives. For example, literature can help us ward off heartbreak, feel more energized and creative, feel empathy for strangers, and see the world more optimistically. In every case, Fletcher explains the invention as a type of primitive technology that’s still entirely relevant and useful today. Emphasizing the lasting power of these inventions, he explains how our brain chemistry is impacted by exposure to the inventions.
Angus Fletcher is uniquely qualified to write on this subject, given his dual degrees in literature and neuroscience. He earned a Ph.D. at Yale, taught Shakespeare at Stanford, and worked as a screenwriter and story consultant in Hollywood. In fact, Wonderworks is perhaps best read as a follow-up to Aristotle’s Poetics, which explains how Greek tragedies helped solders overcome trauma and anxiety caused by war. From the earliest days of literature up to the present moment, literature has held amazing powers to both entertain and to heal. Wonderworks is the perfect guide for modern readers to appreciate literature as an amazing and practical technology.
Peter Clarke is the author of The Singularity Survival Guide and the editor-in-chief of Jokes Literary Review. See: petermclarke.com.