Christopher Booker has written a fascinating book with the potential to transform our understanding of stories and of ourselves. The Seven Basic Plots was three decades in the making and it is clearly the product of much fruitful reflection. It began as an investigation into the recurring patterns in stories – something which has famously been remarked upon but which has, Booker tells us, never before been studied in this systematic way.

And so the book itself begins by looking at the seven plots of the title, from Overcoming the Monster to Rebirth, into one or a combination of which almost all stories can be classified. Booker is concerned not with shallow devices but with the deepest structures and elements common to all stories. Refreshingly, he draws his examples from everywhere: operas, myths, modern cinema; Jane Eyre is not favoured over Dick Whittington. Even where the stories are familiar and might be thought stale and simple, their analysis and comparison with other stories is illuminating. The reader is not witness to a postmortem, or the perhaps overwrought interpretations of a literary critic, but to an excercise that brings old stories to visibly respiring life.

This treatment, originally intended to be whole book, now forms only the first of four parts: Booker has more observations and finds many questions to ask. What is the significance of the number three in stories? When Shakespeare transformed Amleth into Hamlet and kept so many elements of the original story, why did he change the fundamental plot so radically? What is the explanation for the dramatic change that came over stories in the eighteenth century? He moves through the domains of psychology and social history to religion and mysticism.

What all this converges on is a theory of storytelling that might be compared to that elusive grand unified theory for which, in their own domain, physicists are struggling so hard. In a simple, partial form, it is this: just as psychologists say that those about whom we dream represent not other people but aspects of ourselves, the same applies to stories; thus, for example, the tyrant that the hero must overcome represents the dark inversion of an immature quality in himself.

Stated simply, this might appear disappointingly reductive, a theory that threatens to rob the magic from stories. And didn't Jung do something similar in his studies of myth and alchemy? Yet the summaries – Booker remains a storyteller throughout – continue to work their spell: the author has simply added a new dimension of appreciation to them. And while Jung's theories of archetypes and personality are the tools and bedrock of this book, the author is not interested only in finding symbols but in the mechanics of stories: divining the hidden rules which drive them, finding out how stories 'work' and relating this to how we 'work'. He shows the parallels between the work of authors and their life experiences and psychology, with Thomas Hardy providing one of several interesting and tragic examples. And he goes beyond the individual, relating the stories to historical developments and their effects on society, particularly how our consciousness has altered in the last two centuries. This in turn takes us back to our oldest stories and the ultimate reason for why, everywhere, human beings have always told stories, and the challenge that explanation poses for the prevailing culture of the modern world.

This is a long book, and it has faults. The text is sometimes repetitious. Booker thinks monotheistic Judaism predates Babylonian monotheism while modern scholarship suggests otherwise. He ignores any criteria for evaluating literature other than the archetypal – but then his concern is stories in all their forms, not just 'literature'. A primarily Western focus is acknowledged. Most obviously, the political views of the author will antagonize some readers. These come to the fore in the final chapter and might neutrally be called 'robust'. Given that these views serve to emphasize obvious unanswered and probably unanswerable questions of how one may judge where exactly the prized 'middle way' lies, a brief philosophical tip of the hat might have been in order. Instead, Booker leavens his opinions only with some lofty ambiguity, leaving one with the feeling that he devalues his own discoveries by using them as a support.

And, of course, at 700 pages, the book is too long. It is too long in that it may discourage those with limited time from taking it up: the crucial parts of the book might well have been presented more briefly, with equal force but less weight. However, much of that weight comes from the many synopses and analyses which, notwithstanding their non-literary focus, may also be seen as a boon: those vaguely uncomfortable with not having read, for example, that much-referenced 3000-page work A la recherche du temps perdu may decide after reading Booker's six-page account of it that they can set Proust aside without undue embarrassment, whatever the indignant literati might say.

The Seven Basic Plots, however, should be read. It opens the blind on a hidden window onto what stories are about and why they are eternally important to us.

Book review © 2008 Michael Breen