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Social Science Folklore & Mythology


How Words Shape Our World

by (author) J. Edward Chamberlin

Douglas & McIntyre
Initial publish date
May 2023
Folklore & Mythology, Composition & Creative Writing, Storytelling
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2023
    List Price

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A brilliant and timely exploration of the power of stories and songs—from both the distant past and today’s news—counters despair and disillusionment with hope and possibility.

Stories are our first and last survival strategy. For tens of thousands of years, they have told humanity what we know and what we don’t know, what to wonder about and what to watch out for. We draw comfort from our great myths, and from the storytelling of our contemporaries (including members of our families). Storytelling holds us together. And sometimes it keeps us apart.

From the stories we tell children, to literary works, to pop music, stories take many forms and give shape and substance to things we believe, perpetuating ideals and identities and provoke controversy and conflict. They include explanations of the origin and purpose of things, of causes and effects and sequences of events, and of our relationships to the forces that surround us. They also shape the institutions we establish, the ways in which we constitute ourselves as communities, and the covenants we enter into with secular as well as spiritual powers. Stories that celebrate growth and development and “civilized” progress can be a hazard when we use them to destroy Indigenous homelands and heritages and the environment.

Stories can also provide a form of resistance to the overpowering realities of the everyday, empowering our imaginations to create a sense of possibility. It is within storytelling, and by understanding how stories work, that we can find a way to bring sympathy and judgment back into the centre of our conversations about what we can—and what we must—do. Stories and songs, ours and those of others, can help us. They can save us.

About the author

J. Edward Chamberlin was born in Vancouver, and educated at the universities of British Columbia, Oxford, and Toronto. He was Senior Research Associate with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and Poetry Editor of Saturday Night magazine, and has lectured widely on literary, historical and cultural issues. His books include Come Back To Me My Language: Poetry and the West Indies (1993); If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground (2003), which was nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction; and the best-seller, Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations (2006). He lives with his wife, the Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison, in Halfmoon Bay, British Columbia.

J. Edward Chamberlin's profile page

Editorial Reviews

“I heard an Austrian storyteller describe storytelling as ‘the art of juggling with a knife and a balloon.’ With patient humour and an irresistible narrative voice, Chamberlin takes us to the heart of this dilemma. Deploying a lifetime's worth of stories as examples, his quest leads, not to answers, but to ever-more entertaining questions about the nature of truth, belief, wonder, imagination, science, and myth. He argues that the sharp edge of truth and the lightness of wonder come together in the mysterious traverse between storyteller's tongue and listeners' ears to create an ancient, urgent, and just possibly soul-saving dance of suspense and revelation.”

Dan Yashinsky, author of <i>Suddenly They Heard Footsteps - Storytelling for the Twenty-first Century</i>

Storylines is an invitation to journey beyond familiarity, with stories' ambiguities as our guide. This book encourages me. It helps me embrace knowing and not knowing. Professor Chambelin's words provide welcome countermeasures to fractious dichotomies threatening to overwhelm nuance and subtlety in our present age. ”

John Borrows, Loveland Chair in Indigenous Law, University of Toronto Faculty of Law

“J. Edward Chamberlin’s Storylines: How Words Shape Our World tells amazing stories about amazing stories. We tell stories all the time, for good or for ill, but how our telling places us in time and space, how listening to the stories makes us aware of our world or forget it in the telling of tales, is Chamberlin’s mandate. And he acquits it better than any critic, historian, or politician writing today. You want to listen to him tell us his stories, all along aware that you are reading his take on why and how we spin our lives out in our world of words. The best book on narrative theory of the 21st century!”

Sander Gilman, author of <i>I Know Who Caused COVID-19”: Xenophobia and Pandemics</i>

“Chamberlin argues that stories are fundamental to human existence, and in this graceful book-length essay the prize-winning, Vancouver-born author elaborates on that compelling insight…He teases out the connections among disparate traditions and story lines,...All this rich experience is distilled into the good natured, amiable sentences of the book’s praise song to storytelling. Highly recommended. ”

Tom Sandborn, <i>Postmedia</i>

“Ted Chamberlin will always be, first and foremost, a willing disciple to the craft of storytelling: as a listener, as a fan, and as a practitioner. Ted reminds us that stories mend and stories bring hope. This book is a great sharing of a life truly lived with the everyday wonder and celebration of The Great Mystery. I applaud you, Ted, from one storyteller to another. This was a joy to read. Mahsi cho.”

Richard Van Camp, author of <i>Gather: Richard Van Camp on Storytelling</i>

Storylines is a most insightful and engaging book. It is a delightful combination of critical questions and courageous thinking. We learn from the many storytellers that have taught Ted including scientists, Indigenous peoples, and other authors. Ted ties each part of the book directly to a world lived large with fascinating leaders, issues, and struggles. For example, he observes that our storytelling about economic and political change has become both ‘a blessing and curse’. In other words, storytelling is an act of agency to create the world and we are not only responsible for the joy that is possible, but also for the horrors that we inflict on others, the planet, and non-humans. This means that through thoughtful, brave stories, we can create change. Ted notes that ‘we don’t have a GPS for the uncertainties of life’ so we need stories to think through problems and experiences, and to imagine the future.“

Dr. Val Napoleon, Acting Dean and Professor, Faculty of Law, UVIC

“Drawing on memoir, history, politics, literary criticism and personal reflection, J. Edward Chamberlin takes readers on a marvellous journey into the heart of stories and storytelling. The beauty of the book is its conversational style. Chamberlin has created a literary text that sings.”

Wendy Wickwire, author of <i>At the Bridge: James Teit and an Anthropology of Belonging</i>

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