Category Archives: Books

Are You a Storyteller? Then Read this!

Many years ago, back when I was practicing law in Philadlephia, I was told to work on my persuasion skills. I was surprised to find out that this meant becoming a better story teller. Over the years, I have kept that in mind. And these days, I find that being aware of the story components to just about everything I read and write is critical to my understanding of it. Errr … or lack thereof.

But what is storytelling all about? How does one do it better? Good questions. Giovanni Rodriguez offers some interesting insights for Forbes. Here is a section of his piece that I found particularly interesting

The great 20th-century Canadian communications theorist Harold Innis (mentor to the better-known Marshall McLuhan) wrote that fundamentally there are two types of media. First, there’s media that is space-binding, shrinking the physical world by connecting people across geographical boundaries (similar in concept to McLuhan’s “global village”). Second, there’s media that is time-binding — shrinking time by connecting people across historical boundaries (think art, history, and stories about the destiny of a people). This second type of media is perhaps more powerful yet seldom used by organizations and movements that might leverage the past in their storytelling. But with the fast-growing number of institutions that are struggling to be relevant in the 21st century, I believe that time-binding storytelling is the next frontier of communications.

I would be a bit more concrete. Most stories that we relate are about the past leading up to the present. Something happened that was amazing, outrageous, interesting, etc. It had certain effects, and here we are now. We are less used to stories that posit where we are going in the future.

Climate change is an issue that has forced some of us to confront future thinking. And that makes the climate change story very interesting. It is a real time experiment in how we as a species can shape our future by telling stories that stretch our current institutional frameworks. We do not do that very often. In the future, I think it will be less traumatic.

Remembering the Amazing Ballet Mechanique

It is eye opening to find out how much the technology that we call the computerwas derived from innovations in producing self-playing music. For example, the player piano technology used the same hardware/software model that Microsoft used to make Bill Gates et al incredibly rich.

Steve Johnson gets rather deeply into this theme — and others — in the second part of his book “Wonderland”. Here is a peek at his writing in that section of the book.

The distinguished crowd gathered on June 19, 2926, at the Theatre de Champs-Elyse, the grand art deco concert hall in the eighth arrondissement, would have known that they weren’t in for just another night at th eopera the second they caught sight of the instruments assembled on the stage. Alongside a handful of percussive instruments that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Medici wedding-  xylophones, glockonspiels, bass drums – the ensemble also included a pianola, several traditional pianos, a siren, hammers, saws, a collection of electric bells, and two oversized airplane propellers.

Wow!Can’t wait to see how this turns out!

Future? Screw the Future!

One of the weird proto-conservative arguments of many decades ago was that liberals would destroy the fabric of society that made a better future possible. This image of a book  cover of a book by Auberon Waugh tells the story

Image result for Auberon Waugh books

Catles Howard is in flames, and the lord of the manor (or bystander there to tell us abou it) is long past caring. BTW, this is one of my favorite book covers in my library.

The reason I say that this argument is weird is that conserviatves seem no longer interested in “fabrics of society” based on the hierarchies of the past. One has to wonder what are they conserving?

A New Idea from Six Degrees

Six Degrees is a book by Duncan Watts about the science of networks.  Here is a tidbit from a Guardian review by Stephenh Poole

… the success of a pseudo-viral phenomenon, such as the massive sales of the Harry Potter books, may depend not at all on the intrinsic quality of the product but on its luck in dropping into a particularly “vulnerable” area of the network. If you manage to seed only a tiny part of the network, but that part has the right structure, the network will do the rest of the job for you. We may already have suspected something like this to be true, but Watts provides a persuasive model of how it actually works.

Interesting stuff! Here is a more basic idea about networks that I took from the book today.

Networks don’t sit there. They are descriptoins of activities that connect people over time. Conversations, for example, can be the activity. What characteristics make those converstaionsmore effective in synchronizing a network? There are two

  • the relative velocities which the network actors are expeiencing
  • the degree of coupling force that holds them together.

We are used to the “weak networks” idea of social networking. But the veolcity idea is worth thinking about as well. It describrs whetherthe activities of the members of a network are in tune or out of tune with each other.

Fiction and Mastering the Thing We call Life

Stories always play with opposites. If there is a hero, for example, there must be a villain. We can take this a step further. The hero traditionally is handsome or beautiful. So the villain must be ugly. Heroes are kind. Villains are nasty. Heroes are chivalrous. Villains are …. errr … not chivalrous.  Heroes are morally correct. Villains are devilish. You get the idea. Opposites are emphasized in order to add tension to the story.

It didn’t matter if reality was very different. It didn’t matter, for example, that Richard III might have been in reality, a decent chap and competent king. In Shakespeare’s story, he is the monster. who must be defeated. The value of the story does not depend on its faithful tracking what was real. It matters much more that the villain can be recognized as such, is threatening, and with extraordinary effort, is finally defeated by the hero, by the hero’s pals or the heirs to his or her estate (the unfinished business story).

The menace of the villain is important for creating the tension that we need to maintain interest. The more menace, the better, and so villains are often vastly more powerful than the hero (contrast Sauron and Frodo, or Smaug and Bilbo). We would not care, for example, about a power-hungry and an extremely ugly and nasty flea unless we were other fleas or the  dog upon whom the flea wreaks havoc. This is what makes Hamlet so interesting. There is great menace, and foul deeds abound. So there must be a villain. But all die in the end. Were they all villains of different sorts who were unable to break out of their villainy? Some argue that this comes close to Shakespeare’s original intention.

Things became a bit more complicated in the last century when writers sought to break away from the old conventions about morality and heroism. They wanted their stories to be more “lifelike”. Joyce’s heroes, for example. do not fit into the hero/villain conflict mold. Who are the villains in “Ulysses”?  Hmmm ….  And of course, in the last century, we see heroes who are no longer young and handsome or even brave or nice. We even started talking about “anti-heroes”. Do anti-heroes fight anti-villains?

But I would argue that even here, stories do not work well unless they play with severe opposites to create tension. And the opposition in these stories is found elsewhere from simple embodiments of good or evil in given characters. In Joyce you find it in the characters’ desire to see or not see reality around them. Seeing frees the character (a common modernist theme of those days). Not seeing imprisons him or her.  That gives Joyce his unique platform for his tragic and comic view of life. Everyone is running around trying to see whether they see what they see. We are all heores anbd villains in different ways. Errr … do you see that?

Hemingway’s heroes seem to fit this mold as well. They value the courage to see things as they are. Others do not.  Errr … that’s why in life, Hemingway kept escaping from life by running off to war, then Paris, then Africa, then Cuba, and ended up in Idaho.  Each step along the way, he justified his escapes by writing about how he was trying to see things as they really were – to transcend what he had already seen. Did he ever get there?

In this story setting, perhaps life itself may play the role of the villain. Life presents temporary challenges that prevent the hero from seeing what life really is all about. The characters are all trapped in a world that they need to figure out! We are modern Hamlets realizing that we are just characters in a play. Or perhaps trapped in the Matrix.

If this is the case, one tends to fall back on process rather than result. Heroes are mastering or have mastered a certain esstential process. Like Neo becoming the “One”. Others have not and do not want to strive for mastery. It is too hard or too weird. Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge” is an example of this  type of story. Larry Durrell is the hero because he is committed to mastering Buddhism. No one else can figure him out and they are lesser sorts of people as a result. In “The Sun Also Rises”, Jake Barnes may not have a penis anymore, but he seeks to master how to take pleasure in life despite his own … issues. Robert Cohen cannot fathom this because of his severe ego problem – that he does not even see! Poor devil! So cohen strays into silly land and ruins everyone’s good times in Spain.  No problem! Jake the hero can still pick up th e pieces!

Achieving mastery, of course, is one of the great motivators in real life too. It matters not whether what you master is important (even mastering the crossword puzzle for example, can be motivating).  And I think that in a world that grows ever more interconnected and sophisticated, the idea of achieving mastery resonates ever more loudly. So you might expect that the mastery storyline would be popular.  Surprise! Surprise! We have a seemingly bottomless fascination for kung fu, Rambo, superheroes, fantasy creatures, and the rest. I rest my case.

Where is this all headed? My own guess is that 21st century stories will not give up on the idea of opposition born out of desire for mastery and the barriers to achieving it. There will be those who are devoted to mastry and those who are not. The caring and the uncaring.

Come to think of it, that may define US politics now.  Those who care about an issue do not and will not be able to fathom why the others do not. Are they just barbarians? And those who do not care about that issue, will not be able to fathom why the devoted are so worked up. Why don’t they just sit back and enjoy themselves?

In this type of story, we find the potential for something new. Something that takes us beyond 20th century quests for vision. The thing that makes you perhaps “cool”. That something new is what one does with vision. In this story, being content with seeing is a problem.  That is old fasioned. Perhaps even the germ of villainy!

I am curious to see how this plays out! Errr …  are you?

A Wild Image from Six Degrees

I am reading the preface of this book – and already I am intrigued by the hypothesis. The hypothesis is that science needs a fresh approach to understand how connectivity works. Here is a great quote

The dream of Pierre Laplace, the great nineteenth-century Frenhc mathematician – that the universe could be understood in its entirety through reduction to the physics of fundamental particles, churned through a sufficiently powerful computer – has spent the better part of the last century staggering around the scientific stage like a mortally wounded Shakespearean actor, uttering its final soliloquy before finally collapsing altogether.

Bravo! Kind a makes you want to read on!

The Grand Houses of the Imagination

Phyllis Richardson makes a good point. Many authors of great stories have found inspiration to develop the story from the places where their characters reside. Those fictional homes are as important to set the tone of the tory as the characters themselves.  Of course, Brideshead and Howard’s End are two that come to mind.

So, did the authors use real places to anchor their imaginative rmablings? It seems that many did. And Phyllis gives us a fun overview of some of those places.

Not all are grand country houses.

When a country parson published the first two volumes of the rollicking, digressive The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, in 1759, it quickly became a publishing sensation. Sterne had the living at Coxwold, in the Vale of York, which included the tenancy of the cottage that became known as “Shandy Hall”. In such a house, whose close quarters give rise to interruptions – by a thumping across the floor overhead, for example, which disturbs Walter Shandy and Uncle Toby in the parlour, as the maid attends to Mrs Shandy in her struggle to give birth – digressions were inevitable. Sterne completed seven of the nine volumes of the book while in residence at Shandy Hall, and it is easy to see how the cramped conditions of his little home helped to set the stage for the accidents, intrusions, missteps and conversational meanderings of the story. In an age when authors like Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding were writing about grand country piles, Sterne brought readers directly into the rooms of the humble cottage, sat them by the fire and gave them a cracking good tale.

Delightful!