A Non-Narrative Explanation of the Importance of Narrative

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Eric Middlebrook
Professor Stephens
LIT 4433
“A Non-Narrative Explanation of the Importance of Narrative”
Everyone is familiar on some level with the drab sort of dry-as-a-bone scientific literature students are forced to read and attempt to digest. But perhaps not as many have been exposed to any sort of scientific literature relayed in a narrative style, even though those who have probably retained that information more clearly than those who have only perused long-winded text books. The fact of the matter is that when information is presented in a manner that is contextualized through narration, it is more readily retained and recalled. Amongst examples used to illustrate the point, one Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History will provide a counter-example with which to contextualize the thesis, backed by scientific fact that lends itself toward that same thesis. Also of note is the irony that this paper is written in an expository fashion.

To understand how a narrative writing style might increase a reader’s level of understanding and retention of facts, one should first be somewhat acquainted with exactly what makes a narrative and just what exactly it is that makes them such a good model for presenting information. According to Bruner (via Avraamidou and Osborne), “[t]he situations and episodes in narrative have a close correspondence to everyday experiences, so the comprehension mechanisms are much more natural than those recruited during the comprehension of other discourse genres such as argumentation, expository text, and logical reasoning.” They go on to list seven criteria to classify a narrative: purpose, events, structure, time, agency, narrator and reader. Purpose is the narratives ability to convey understanding of the human or natural world. Events are a chain of sequences connected to each other in some sensical fashion. Structure denotes that the work has an identifiable beginning, middle and end. Narratives occur in the past tense, which is what is meant by ‘time.’ Agency says that there are actors in the narrative – human or otherwise – that are part of and act in events. There must be a narrator to relate the details to the last member of the heptfecta, the reader. (Avraamidou and Osborne) Exactly seventy-five per cent of the novels covered in this class have fit this description of narrative spot-on. The first to go under the microscope is the twenty-five per cent that doesn’t quite fit the bill.

Steven Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life seems as though it might be a failed attempt at a narrative representation of scientific fact. That is to say, it meets most or all of the requirements of narrativity at one point or another, but never all at once. Apart from that, its frequent use of overly-scientific language makes it more inaccessible to readers. For example, “Most modern chelicerates have six uniramous appendages on the prosoma… The opisthosomal appendages are also uniramous, but have been built from gill branches only.” (Gould 106) Most of this is probably over the heads of most laymen, though the book can be found on the shelves of plenty of non-specialised book stores, seemingly as though it were target toward those same people who might have a rather difficult time following a piece as technical as this. Where Wonderful Life might really lose a reader is when it’s describing one of a seemingly endless amount of extinct creatures: “The trunk has twelve segments, with cylindrical telson. The extended tail spike, ornamented with barbs and ridges, is unsegmented, but has a single joint about two thirds of the way back.” (Gould 179) There are not actors in a text like this. Without actors, there is no one to exert any sort of agency, and its narrativity falls to pieces by definition.

On the other end of the spectrum are works like Bill McKibben’s The Age of Missing Information. With this work, McKibben managed to present his scientific findings, however...
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