Our place in the world

The human mind is structured around stories. Connecting things to stories, poems, songs, music and visual art makes this knowledge more real to us, charged with emotive power, which aids in the forming of memories. It helps us come to know things, and to know their place, by knowing ourselves more deeply as well. Storytelling helps us to find our place in the world.

This is from a fascinating article by Gene Tracy on how we’ve become increasingly disconnected from the stars.  

The entire article and this section in particular resonated with something I’ve been doin lately. 

A few months ago, my son received a star projector from his grandfather. This has become a part of our bedtime ritual. When I’m home in time for bedtime, we tell Nub Nub stories: these a creatures that have a secret hideout in the centre of the Earth and have adventures in the stars. 

The constellations are characters in these stories. We usually start with their various mythological stories and proceed from there. 

Over the past few months, both my son and I have become much more familiar with the constellations. It’s not something we set out to do, but sort of evolved over time. 

We have a much better knowledge of the stars than we would if I decided to teach him about the constellations and he had to memorise them. We may have done it, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun and we’d have no personal connection to those constellations. Boötes, for instance, is a constellation I’ve never paid much attention to, but he’s a pretty important character in the stories. 

This is something that I hope I’ll remember when there is something that my son needs to learn: we learn through storytelling and practice. Memorization and rote learning are usually not the way to mastery of a subject. 


  • I wonder if there is a time when rote learning trumps more experiential learning. The obvious one would be multiplication tables. I spent months memorizig these as a child. Now, however, my son’s school seems to be focusing on understanding how multiplication works, rather than memorization.
  • Tracy’s article mentions the extended mind. It’s an unteresting idea I’ve encountered before, but need to explore further.
  • I’m not sure I entirely agree with some of the conclusions of Tracy’s article: specifically that technology erodes put sense of place and the importance of storytelling. It’s an idea that goes back to Plato’s concerns about reading and the loss of memory. Is it more true now than it was then? Or isnthe technology just less familiar? Or do new technologies fron reading onward actually change us in ways that eventually become familiar and imperceptible?


What is a ruin, after all? It is a human construction abandoned to nature, and one of the allure of ruins in the city is that of wilderness: a place full of promise of the unknown with all its epiphanies and dangers.

Rebecca Solnit, discussing what attracts us to ruins, in A Field Guide To Getting Lost (pp. 88-89). I’ve always been fascinated the cracked sidewalk and the plants that grow in those cracks. Even there, we can see nature undoing what we have so recently done, despite our efforts to hold nature at bay. And this does hold a certain fascination.

My brother once gave me a framed copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias, which he’d typeset in one of the classes he was taking at library school. It still sits on my desk at home. This is certainly part of the fascination with ruins: the desert sands overtaking a powerful man’s great work, the thought of everyone’s eventual end.

I think there is something else that fascinates, though. Ruins capture, almost overwhelm, the imagination. I remember the feeling of being overwhelmed by an unknown past when I walked through the ruins of Ostia Antica or Chaco Canyon. Ruins are invitation to hear stories you don’t yet know. As I stepped through the hushed ruins, I could almost hear them whispering those stories to me: story upon story upon story, waiting to be discovered. You can make up your own stories up—as Rebecca Solnit did in the ruins of the hospital that inspired her meditation on ruins—or you can seek it out. I think both are valid.

Ruins are inviting and fascinating because they tap into the deep human need for stories. Our efforts at preservation are an attempt to preserve what Solnit calls grandmother sources: the stories that we don’t already know, that don’t fit into the grand narrative, that offer different and valuable perspectives, that ensure we learn from the mistakes of the past.

Perhaps these forgotten stories are a part of what Solnit means when she speaks of “the unknown with all its epiphanies and dangers.”

The power of the small story

I really strongly believe in the power of the small story, because it is so difficult to do humanitarian work at a global scale. When you zoom out that far, you lose the ability to view people as humans.

Emily Pilloton’s TED talk, Teaching design for change, is one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen. In it she tells the story of using integrating design thinking into a small town public school system. In doing so, they not only helped improve the school system, but used it as a way to help the entire community.

Books are like sharks

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

This is the third thing that I wanted to pull out from Neil Gaiman’s lecture at The Reading Agency.

Douglas Adams is right. Books—physical books—have been around for centuries. They’ve spent a long time being adapted to all the things we need them to. I’ve encountered the current limitations of ebooks lately.

I’ve mentioned Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation on this blog a few times. I read it on my Kindle and iPhone. It’s a great book, but reading the foot notes was often a pain. It was a lot of moving back and forth. It got to the point that I ignored most of the footnotes, whereas if I’d been reading the physical book, I would have just glanced down at the bottom of the page.

I’ve also been reading Run Less, Run Faster recently. Determining a training plan means moving across several tables that contain racing plans, cross training suggested and suggested paces. I found this virtually impossible to do in an ebook. So much so, that I ordered the a physical copy of the book.

I also don’t think these are insurmountable issues. The problem right now is that many books are written with a physical book in mind. As people start writing and designing books knowing they are likely to be read across a range of devices, things like footnotes and tables will be presented differently and in a more usable way.

What I do think is interesting is that when I’m reading fiction, it doesn’t really matter what format I’m reading it in. Well, unless it’s something like Infinite Jest or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which are experimenting with the conventions of physical books). But most works of fiction have made the transition to ebooks without any issues. Again, Neil Gaiman has something to say about this.

We need libraries. We need books. We need literate citizens. I do not care – I do not believe it matters – whether these books are paper, or digital, whether you are reading on a scroll or scrolling on a screen. The content is the important thing. But a book is also the content, and that’s important.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

Tales. Stories. They’ve outlasted the format they were written in. Whether in song, on papyrus, on potsherds, on scrolls, or in a book. Stories pass easily from one format to another. Burroughs said language is a virus for outer space, but I think it’s stories that are viral, inhabiting whatever format is available at the time.

One final thought. If books are like sharks, then stories are like dogs. They’ve adapted and evolved along with us. They are both a big part of what make us human. Our technology advances—stone carvings, agriculture, paper, cities, the printing press, the Internet and ebooks—but dogs and stories have stayed with us and easily adapted to those changes.

The human factor

But isn’t the human factor what connects us so deeply to our past? Will future generations care as much for chronologies and casualty statistics as they would for the personal accounts of individuals not so different from themselves? By excluding the human factor, aren’t we risking the kind of personal detachment from a history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it?

Max Brooks, Word War Z

Regaining a kind of paradise

Chimamanda Adichie has given what has to be one of my favorite TED talks of all time. In The Danger of a Single Story she discusses the problem with listening to just one story to the exclusion of all others.

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story…

The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar…

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity…

When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

Those are the highlights of the talk, the phrases that struck me as I was listening to it. You’ll want to hear the whole thing, though, for the stories she weaves through the entire talk.