On New Year’s Eve 2013 I was standing in the kitchen of a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean in California, chatting to an Englishman who writes English subtitles for French films. We began to talk about Beowulf, David and Goliath, and Jaws. Then one of us said, with a shrug and an upward sweep of the hands, ‘They’re the same story.’ The other nodded. A flash of recognition passed between us which said, ‘You’ve read that book too?’ And indeed we had.
It has become something of a truism in literary circles, since at least the middle of the eighteenth century, that all the world’s literature, and indeed all the world’s storytelling, can be reduced to a handful of storylines. Goethe believed this, as did Samuel Johnson, who contemplated writing a book on this theme but gave it up.
Fortunately, another man did not give up. He took all the world’s storytelling from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Star Wars – myth, legend, films, novels, theatre, opera, narrative poetry, everything and everyone, from Dante to Tolkien, Homer to Hemingway – and boiled it down to seven basic plots. It took him more than thirty years. It is a wonder it did not take him thirty decades.
The result is 700 pages of not-terribly-large print which read like an adventure story. I passed the book on to a friend, an accomplished actor who fell in love with theatre because he loves storytelling, and it destroyed his life for a week. His wife couldn’t get him off the sofa.
The man who accomplished this thirteenth labour of Hercules, this literary distillation that forges friendships and threatens marriages, is Christopher Booker, and his book is The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004).
Known to British readers as the founding editor of Private Eye and a contributor to the Sunday Telegraph, Booker has written a stout pile of books, none of which, I must confess, I have read
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