Law and Conversation

August 25, 2011

Steve Jobs: Stories for life

Filed under: storytelling — Helen Gunnarsson @ 9:20 am
Tags: ,

The biggest business story this week has been not the gyrating stock market, but Steve Jobs’s resignation from the position of CEO of Apple Corporation. A story behind the paywall at The Wall Street Journal reminded me that Jobs gave a moving speech at Stanford University’s 2005 commencement. An easy Google search took me to a transcript of his remarks, on Stanford’s website. [Update: though when I drafted this post yesterday, the text on the WSJ site was behind its paywall, I see that today it’s accessible without a paid subscription, as is some other Jobs/Apple related content. Don’t miss the video front and center, anchored by Stacy DeLo, reviewing Jobs’s career and the creation of the revolutionary products that he oversaw at Apple.]

I’ve read a lot of wonderful inspirational remarks to young people. Jobs’s speech, in which he tells three stories about scary events in his own life to illustrate his excellent advice, ranks with the best of them. An excerpt:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Whatever your age, go read Jobs’s speech, and think about the power of his stories.

What stories have made a difference in your life?

ANOTHER UPDATE: Journalism professor Adam Penenberg has posted a definitive summary and compilation of article links on Jobs in “Steve Jobs: A Mega, Meta Appreciation” over at Fast Company. Hat tip: Steve Buttry and a couple of people he retweeted on Twitter.

August 3, 2011

Making executions public

As I wrote earlier this week, David Lat and Zachary Shemtob had a thoughtful editorial in The New York Times this weekend advocating for televising executions.

Some years ago, my reaction to this idea would have been that televising executions, or otherwise making public spectacles of executions as was routinely done not so many years ago, would be revolting and barbaric. At that time, I was a supporter of capital punishment, reasoning that some crimes are so awful that they deserve death. But I didn’t like to think about it–the idea of killing someone, premeditated and approved by law, made me too uncomfortable.

Then I read an historian’s account of public executions in 18th century England (Robert Hughes’s “The Fatal Shore,” a history of Australia). Hughes wrote of the crowds that turned out to see convicts taken to the gallows and the pervasive carnival-like atmosphere. His vivid description, which I have no doubt was completely accurate, disgusted me and started me thinking: if you wouldn’t want someone to see what you’re doing because it’s so awful, why would you want to do it at all? And why would you approve of your government doing something so horrible that it can’t be allowed to be shown in public–even though national security (which I agree would be a compelling reason, as in the execution of Osama bin Laden and in the photos of his body) is not an issue?

Lat and Shemtob are careful to say that they, like many citizens, are deeply conflicted over capital punishment and are not urging their point as a means of turning public opinion against it (though they recognize that others have). Their argument for bringing sunshine into the execution chamber is strong and convincingly written.

In the meantime, I’ve reconciled my own conflict on the issue, following reading Hughes, as follows: though some criminals may deserve death, it doesn’t follow that the government should mete it out. So my reaction to Lat’s and Shemtob’s argument remains that public executions would be revolting and barbaric–but I also believe that executions that are not open to the public are revolting and barbaric. So, if we’re going to impose the death penalty and kill people, let’s adopt Lat’s and Shemtob’s proposal, and let everyone see exactly what happens during an execution.

And that highlights a compelling reason for reading (and telling) stories: they can help you think about and see things differently, whether personal matters, current events, or what have you. I wouldn’t have expected a story about events in 18th century England, contained in a history of Australia, to lead me to change my mind about the death penalty in the modern USA, but it did.

Has a story ever helped you to see another matter in a different light?

May 27, 2011

Book illustrations, art, and story

Earlier this week I highlighted some beautiful sites and works of artists Lynda Barry, Kerry Dennehy, and Alyssa Sherwood and again mentioned Sue Symons‘s intricate and gorgeous Bath Abbey Diptychs. Over on the right hand side of this page, you’ll see some links to some art sites I really like. One of those sites is Old Book Illustrations, dedicated to illustrations scanned from old books.

Illustrations not only can capture and maintain a reader’s interest but also can help tell a story. I suppose that’s why they’re used so much in children’s books; kids who haven’t yet learned to read as well as they might can still get something out of the story by looking at the pictures, and those who read OK but who might not see reading as a really fun way to pass some time might stick with it longer if the book has some good pictures that they enjoy. Trial lawyers and other presenters understand this principle and employ it to good effect by using exhibits and PowerPoint presentations during trials and presentations.

But even apart from business or reading to our children, we grown-ups can still love pictures and illustrated books. I’d love to see publishers work with artists to provide more illustrated books for the adult market.  The Folio Society in London does; though its books are far more expensive than even the hardback editions of other publishers, they’re still an affordable choice (operative word being “choice”) if one of your priorities is to have beautiful copies of books you want to read and reread on your shelves. (Full disclosure: Alas, the Folio Society pays me nothing and gives me no discounts for my telling people how much I love their editions 😦 .)

Some writers have used pictures as the bases for stories. One of the best known recent examples is Tracy Chevalier’s “Girl With A Pearl Earring,” inspired by a Vermeer painting. (Chevalier describes the moment of her inspiration on her website.) And Oscar Wilde‘s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” has at the heart of its story a fictional portrait that changes with the soul of the title character, who remains outwardly forever young and beautiful–in contrast to his deplorable behavior and inner life. (Though the picture of that story is fictional, a 20th century artist, Ivan Albright, painted a real one that hangs in The Art Institute of Chicago.) And, of course, the growing graphic novel genre, in which the art is at least as important as the text to the story, has really come into its own over the past 30 years or so.

Have you read any books that featured memorable illustrations?

December 9, 2010

Three fun books on food

For my Read This! post on Monday I highlighted Jeffrey Steingarten’s “It Must’ve Been Something I Ate,” a delightful compilation of Steingarten’s columns on food from Vogue magazine.  Today I have three other books on food as part of my weekly series recommending three books with a common theme that tell great stories:

1) Heat, by Bill Buford.  Account of the amateur chef and former Granta magazine editor of learning culinary techniques by working in the restaurant kitchen of his pal, renowned chef Mario Batali.  For a fun book group activity, count the number of times Batali uses the f-word.

2) Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain.  Memoir of how the Travel Channel superstar got interested in food and started his career.  Bourdain tells a great story and doesn’t flinch when it comes to the less attractive aspects of his own behavior, one of the marks of a really good memoirist.

3)  Food Matters:  A Guide to Conscious Eating, by Mark Bittman.  Bittman’s articles on food and cooking in The New York Times are superb examples of storytelling; as I noted on Monday, the one on no-knead bread can change your life.  In this book, he recounts his own journey toward awareness of what he eats.  As a bonus, he includes a number of recipes.

If you have an interest in cooking, the forums on are a great place to go for advice. 

Three’s a lovely number, but any list of three books necessarily omits many others that are equally good or even better.  What food books have you enjoyed?

UPDATE:  Commenting on an editorial by David Frum on CNNMark Bittman weighs in on obesity and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

November 26, 2010

More on story from Lynda Barry and Harvey Pekar

I thought I’d exhausted my postings on artist Lynda J. Barry, but another subscriber has alerted the Yahoo! discussion group for Lynda to a Thanksgiving Day announcement from her publisher, Drawn And Quarterly of Montreal, that it will publish *ALL* of her comics, starting next fall.  Above the publisher’s announcement is the very first comic of Barry’s that I remember reading as a college student, which instantly intrigued me and remains among my all-time favorites.  The D&Q announcement is wonderful news for all of us who love Barry’s cartoons.

Today, Barry conducts workshops and has published books such as “Picture This!” aimed at encouraging people to rediscover their creativity and tell their stories through writing and drawing.  Harvey Pekar, about whom I posted last week, wrote of his growing fascination with comics and story during the 1960s, after he met comic book artist R. Crumb.  In his graphic memoir, “Quitter,” Pekar said he observed that underground comics frequently took the bohemian life style as their subject and started wondering why no one had written about subjects more ambitious than hippies and superheroes.  Comics, he wrote, which were simply words and pictures, “were as good an art form as any that existed….Why couldn’t comics be about the lives of working stiffs?  We’re as interesting and funny as anyone else.” 

Pekar held onto his idea and ultimately made it a reality in his “American Splendor” comic books, which acquired a cult following.  By telling his story, Pekar, a career file clerk who had acquired a habit of quitting things in his youth, achieved greatness.

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