Thursday, March 10, 2022

Cleaning the office again

So I'm working on another crazy new business venture (you'll find out soon enough), and when I start a new venture I always feel the need to clean my office. 

What are stories for?

Here's a thing I came across in my cleaning that I thought you might like to see. Years ago, I wrote about an experience that helped me understand the allure of stories. I was eating breakfast one day while leafing through a magazine, and I saw an advertisement that went like this:

something in small print


something else in small print

In a split second, my hand jerked the magazine up to my face. I had to know what was because of what. 

I used this little story to talk about why stories are so engaging. To survive, we need to know what happens because of what. Stories help us figure that out, because in every story, something happens because of something.

Well. When I was cleaning my office this time, I found that advertisement. Apparently I had ripped it out of the magazine and kept it.

It doesn't say "because." It says "more importantly." Huh. I remembered it wrong all these years. 

That's even better! Now it shows two things:

  1. Stories are engaging because we need to know what is more important than what. In every story, something is more important than something else. (It just so happens that this is also true.) Stories are importance filters. They help us to distinguish signals from noise.
  2. Stories are unreliable because we often remember them wrong, change them in memory, and use them to deceive ourselves and others. Stories can help us to distinguish signals from noise. But they can also distort signals, and they can create illusions of signals that do not exist. 

When it comes to making sense of the world, stories are necessary and insufficient. This is why narrative thinking works best in synergy with other modes of thinking. We are the storytelling animal, yes, and we are the list-making animal, the data-gathering animal, the hypothesis-testing animal, and the fact-checking animal. 

This is also why every folk tale tradition, going back thousands of years, includes stories whose purpose is to ridicule the simplistic belief that storytelling can ever be sufficient in and of itself.

Anyway, I thought you folks might enjoy that little story-of-a-story.

Anybody want a book?

If you have spoken to me over Zoom in the past decade, you may have experienced this snippet of conversation.

You: Some interesting thing.

Me: Oh, I have this great book about that! It's by . . . I don't remember, but it's here somewhere. Let me look.

You: More interesting things. 

Me: What? Oh, sorry, I was looking for that book.

This will no longer happen. I have finally rearranged all of my books into nice neat categories. 

What are the categories? What sorts of books does an ecologist-turned-social-researcher have on her shelves? 

  • folk tales,
  • narrative (separated, of course, into form, function, and phenomenon), 
  • story work, group work, community work, organizational work (including knowledge management),
  • anthropology, sociology, research (narrative, action, qualitative, mixed-methods),
  • ecology, science, history and philosophy of science,
  • complexity, complexity in human life (groups, societies, organizations), 
  • decision making, decision support, policy, conflict, political science,
  • knowledge, psychology, cognitive science, philosophy,
  • history, culture, cultural change,
  • art, writing, design (visual, educational, software, games), programming, statistics.


While sorting, I found multiple copies of several books. If anyone wants any of these books, send me an email with your physical address, and I will send it to you. The books are:

One of the books I "bought" multiple copies of was my own. Apparently, when I have needed to look up something in WWS, I have been taking copies out of the box of books I bought to sell or give away at conferences, forgetting that I had already done so. I found three of these extra copies of WWS, sticky-noted but otherwise pristine.

But on looking at my box of books, I think I should just give the whole thing away. I have about a dozen copies of WWS that would have gone into other hands over the past few years if I had been attending in-person conferences. But as it is, they are just sitting here taking up space. So if you want one, let me know, and I'll send it to you.

Of course, it will cost me something to mail books to you, especially if you are not in the United States. However, I am willing to set up a sliding scale so I can declutter my office. If you want to send me something to defray the shipping cost, go ahead and do that. (You can use the donate button on either the WWS or NarraFirma web site. On the NF site, the blue donate button is near the bottom of the page.) If you can't send me anything for the postage, I'll send you the book(s) you want anyway.

[Update: Due to this thing called inflation and shipping prices being higher than I remember, I have had to restrict this free-books offer to only those with a US address. Sorry!]

At this time I would like to extend a sincere apology to a person (they know who they are) to whom I promised to send one of my duplicate books several years ago. I forgot to do it, then lost the book.

If you ask me to send you one of these books, and I don't send it, please, keep reminding me.

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