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The Filthiest Book in the Western Canon

Roger Shank, perhaps the most astute guru in the field of artificial intelligence, argues that intelligence is the ability to tell the right story at the right time, and so provide an illuminating (business) case. In his path breaking book, Tell Me a Story, Shank argues that artificial intelligence must be based on how we use narratives and stories. Why? Because the process of creating the story also creates the memory structure (schema) that will contain the gist of the story for the rest of our lives.The November 11 issue of the New Yorker has an absolutely brilliant review of Wayne Rebhorn’s new translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron, one of the great story books of the Western Canon, that body of books that was most important and influential in shaping Western Culture. I first read it in a brilliant college class on Renaissance history. So I can attest to the fact that, as Joan Acocello writes, the Decameron is the filthiest book in the Western Canon. It’s also fabulous fun filled with sex, but not pornography. Decameron followed Dante’s Inferno, which, uniquely, was written not in Latin, but in the vulgar Italian and about the . . .
aristocracy of Italy. Decameron, too, is in the common tongue, but it’s about the peasants. The Decameron is like the Arabian Nights, with 100 stories about the peasants. It’s about happiness and the love of the world, but especially the love of sex. The dominant notes are “realism, and cheer and disorderliness.”
And as you can guess, Boccaccio is not afraid of blasphemy. He’s got the crooks and the corrupt in his sights. But there is nothing he insists on more than the corruption of the clergy. He also plays the business people against the (Wall Street) establishment mucky-mucks. There are women galore in the stories, but they are neither exploited nor betrayed. Instead, they are “resourceful, direct, and frequently saucy.” And without the Decameron there would be no “Beatrice: in “Much Ado About Nothing,” that glorious feminist play of Shakespeare. There’d be no Canterbury Tales and no King James Bible for every man or woman who could read in their own language. And certainly no Ben Franklin’s Almanac with weather forecasts, puzzles, and household hints.  You should also know that Boccaccio is the foremost master of the sexual euphemism, a skill most of today’s movies and script writers lack—what with their boring use of the F. . .  word. So Boccaccio writes of his lovers who “grind at the mill, they give the wool a whacking; they make the nightingale sing.”Learning and the story analogyAbsolutely, it’s a must to read Accocello’s review first so you get the context and the stories, but then don’t let the sun set before you pick up a copy of Rebhorn’s Decameron translation. Remember, it’s our narrative heritage. And it’s a hilarious picture of how storytelling in the vernacular began. Prior to Dante and Boccaccio storytelling was in formal Latin. But Boccaccio writes for the unwashed herd of his day, reveling in the storytelling that Archie Bunker or Mike and Molly would certainly get.Now to get more focused. One of the most fundamental facts about learning is that we learn by analogy. Although many coaches and managers get all caught up in principles, theories and abstractions, the truth is that the best learning is by analogy drawn from our narratives. Indeed, research emphasizes again and again that examples, cases, narratives or stories that can provide analogies and build our intelligence, are the best means of learning. If people notice a similarity between a new problem and one of their previously learned cases or problem examples—and if the current problem reminds them of a prior example—they can use the prior example to inform the current example. If, for example, you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, you know that he uses the AIDS epidemic as an analogous story for explaining the successful sale of a product. One story, the epidemic, informs another story, the potential product sale of sneakers.Efficient information managementThe fact of the matter is far too few business people know how to create or tell a story. They were not read to, they were not told stories, they didn’t read GREAT stories, and so they never learned to tell stories. It’s a very personal loss that often affects their business success.One thing that typically happens when listening to the stories of others is that we seize on some element in the other person’s story, which reminds us of something in our own lives, and wait for the moment when we can tell our own story. Of course, telling our story to another reinforces our memory base. A nice way of defending that narcissism is to say that some apparent vanity is simply efficient information management.Ummm. I got at least 75% of my 450 clients by telling great stories about previous clients (with names protected) and me. ‘Nuff said?I’m fighting a losing battle when I suggest that business people read a modern short story. But sex? That’s a different matter. Of course, it’s very useful to see the analogies done in a truly great book that lives on in its impact. So get your nose out of your business book, read Boccaccio, do some literary criticism and see what he’s done in analogy after analogy.As you read, you might ask what Boccaccio thinks the reader should do or think after he reads the story? What does the story ask the reader to assume? What does the story take as common sense? And who is empowered or disempowered?Rule #1: One of the best ways to learn something is to get completely out of one’s context and see how a different context gives better insights. I coached in Brazil for a dozen months, and found that many of my strategies worked differently in that culture—and some didn’t work at all. This enabled me to critique myself and to become a better coach here in the States. The Decameron will get you out of your normal business context. And it’ll provide an intriguing learning experience for your business development.What do stories do for you?The implication of all this for business people is that knowng how to tell stories and how to understand them is very important. The personal narrative is a case in point for everyone in business: a story everyone should have at his or her command. So, as you think through your own brief personal narrative ask the four questions about the Decameron from above. If you haven’t already done so, write out your brief personal narrative in a maximum of eight to ten sentences. Recognize that there are a number of benefits for being able to tell your own story.–A two-to-four sentence personal narrative prevents colleagues from making assumptions and drawing conclusions on their own.–Stories of your past successes can make people more interested in working with you—and deciding whether they should work with you.–Personal flair with a combination of honesty, humility and personal flavor gets traction with the right people. (Most business speak is boring as hell. But Boccaccio can warm you up!)–Personal narratives give you an easy way of sharing your career insights, and are far easier to deal with than a list of what you’ve done.–Personal narratives tend to be remembered by others more easily than any other verbal form.–Personal narratives are good for others by averting interpersonal friction and misunderstandings down the road.Yeah, I know. This is a subversive blog. But the best preachers and coaches, like the best managers, are artists at subversion. So. . . here’s some “great filth” to read—with my blessing.Shakespeare, “Much Ado About Nothing.” Starring Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Keanu Reeves, Denzel Washington, etc. (a glorious rendition of Shakespeare, filled with sex, laughter, repartee, saucy hard-to-get females, that will make all kinds of sense once you’ve read from the Decamaron.)
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 Artificial intelligence
Roger Shank, perhaps the most astute guru in the field of artificial intelligence, argues that intelligence is the ability to tell the right story at the right time, and so provide an illuminating (business) case. In his path breaking book, Shank argues that artificial intelligence must be based on how we use narratives and stories. Why? Because the process of creating the story also creates the memory structure (schema) that will contain the gist of the story for the rest of our lives.

The November 11 issue of the New Yorker has an absolutely brilliant review of Wayne Rebhorn’s new translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron, one of the great story books of the Western Canon, that body of books that was most important and influential in shaping Western Culture. I first read it in a brilliant college class on Renaissance history. So I can attest to the fact that, as Joan Acocello writes, the Decameron is the filthiest book in the Western Canon. It’s also fabulous fun filled with sex, but not pornography. Decameron followed Dante’s Inferno, which, uniquely, was written not in Latin, but in the vulgar Italian and about the aristocracy of Italy. Decameron, too, is in the common tongue, but it’s about the peasants. The Decameron is like the Arabian Nights, with 100 stories about the peasants. It’s about happiness and the love of the world, but especially the love of sex. The dominant notes are “realism, and cheer and disorderliness.”

And as you can guess, Boccaccio is not afraid of blasphemy. He’s got the crooks and the corrupt in his sights. But there is nothing he insists on more than the corruption of the clergy. He also plays the business people against the (Wall Street) establishment mucky-mucks. There are women galore in the stories, but they are neither exploited nor betrayed. Instead, they are “resourceful, direct, and frequently saucy.” And without the Decameron there would be no “Beatrice: in “Much Ado About Nothing,” that glorious feminist play of Shakespeare. There’d be no Canterbury Tales and no King James Bible for every man or woman who could read in their own language. And certainly no Ben Franklin’s Almanac with weather forecasts, puzzles, and household hints.  You should also know that Boccaccio is the foremost master of the sexual euphemism, a skill most of today’s movies and script writers lack—what with their boring use of the F. . .  word. So Boccaccio writes of his lovers who “grind at the mill, they give the wool a whacking; they make the nightingale sing.”

Learning and the story analogy
Absolutely, it’s a must to read Accocello’s review first so you get the context and the stories, but then don’t let the sun set before you pick up a copy of Rebhorn’s Decameron translation. Remember, it’s our narrative heritage. And it’s a hilarious picture of how storytelling in the vernacular began. Prior to Dante and Boccaccio storytelling was in formal Latin. But Boccaccio writes for the unwashed herd of his day, reveling in the storytelling that Archie Bunker or Mike and Molly would certainly get.

Now to get more focused. One of the most fundamental facts about learning is that we learn by analogy. Although many coaches and managers get all caught up in principles, theories and abstractions, the truth is that the best learning is by analogy drawn from our narratives. Indeed, research emphasizes again and again that examples, cases, narratives or stories that can provide analogies and build our intelligence, are the best means of learning. If people notice a similarity between a new problem and one of their previously learned cases or problem examples—and if the current problem reminds them of a prior example—they can use the prior example to inform the current example. If, for example, you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, you know that he uses the AIDS epidemic as an analogous story for explaining the successful sale of a product. One story, the epidemic, informs another story, the potential product sale of sneakers.

Efficient information management
The fact of the matter is far too few business people know how to create or tell a story. They were not read to, they were not told stories, they didn’t read GREAT stories, and so they never learned to tell stories. It’s a very personal loss that often affects their business success.

One thing that typically happens when listening to the stories of others is that we seize on some element in the other person’s story, which reminds us of something in our own lives, and wait for the moment when we can tell our own story. Of course, telling our story to another reinforces our memory base. A nice way of defending that narcissism is to say that some apparent vanity is simply efficient information management.

Ummm. I got at least 75% of my 450 clients by telling great stories about previous clients (with names protected) and me. ‘Nuff said?

I’m fighting a losing battle when I suggest that business people read a modern short story. But sex? That’s a different matter. Of course, it’s very useful to see the analogies done in a truly great book that lives on in its impact. So get your nose out of your business book, read Boccaccio, do some literary criticism and see what he’s done in analogy after analogy.

As you read, you might ask what Boccaccio thinks the reader should do or think after he reads the story? What does the story ask the reader to assume? What does the story take as common sense? And who is empowered or disempowered?

Rule #1: One of the best ways to learn something is to get completely out of one’s context and see how a different context gives better insights. I coached in Brazil for a dozen months, and found that many of my strategies worked differently in that culture—and some didn’t work at all. This enabled me to critique myself and to become a better coach here in the States. The Decameron will get you out of your normal business context. And it’ll provide an intriguing learning experience for your business development.

What do stories do for you?
The implication of all this for business people is that knowng how to tell stories and how to understand them is very important. The personal narrative is a case in point for everyone in business: a story everyone should have at his or her command. So, as you think through your own brief personal narrative ask the four questions about the Decameron from above. If you haven’t already done so, write out your brief personal narrative in a maximum of eight to ten sentences. Recognize that there are a number of benefits for being able to tell your own story.

–A two-to-four sentence personal narrative prevents colleagues from making assumptions and drawing conclusions on their own.

–Stories of your past successes can make people more interested in working with you—and deciding whether they should work with you.

–Personal flair with a combination of honesty, humility and personal flavor gets traction with the right people. (Most business speak is boring as hell. But Boccaccio can warm you up!)

–Personal narratives give you an easy way of sharing your career insights, and are far easier to deal with than a list of what you’ve done.

–Personal narratives tend to be remembered by others more easily than any other verbal form.

–Personal narratives are good for others by averting interpersonal friction and misunderstandings down the road.

Yeah, I know. This is a subversive blog. But the best preachers and coaches, like the best managers, are artists at subversion. So. . . here’s some “great filth” to read—with my blessing.

Shakespeare, “Much Ado About Nothing.” Starring Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Keanu Reeves, Denzel Washington, etc. (a glorious rendition of Shakespeare, filled with sex, laughter, repartee, saucy hard-to-get females, that will make all kinds of sense once you’ve read from the Decamaron.)

Flickr photo: Elliott.G.Montello

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