All in Books

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Permit a diversion from my usual focus on the intangibles of organizational reputation and the particular influence of social media on the way we think, campaign and work. (Although at a stretch you could say the comments below are related to the quality and impact of messaging.)

Put simply, I think grammar is important. No surprise to those who have listened to me rail against, for example, the use of 'invite', a verb, as a noun, as in 'I will send you an invite' when it should be 'I will send you an invitation'. It's just one example of the illiteracy to which the English language has been subjected as a consequence of the educated allowing any stupid expression into the language because it is purportedly colloquial (read . . . often heard among shop clerks.)

Of course, I make mistakes in grammar more frequently than I want to. But I am delighted to be corrected. My point here, though, is that we should care. As for why, I came across an eloquent defence of the importance of grammar in Muriel Barbery's intelligent novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Here is what her character, the precocious twelve-year-old Paloma Josse, has to say about the beauty of grammar: 

"Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you've said or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognize a well-turned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language. When you use grammar you peel back the layers, to see how it is all put together, see it quite naked, in a way. And that's where it becomes wonderful, because you say to yourself 'Look how well-made this is, how well-constructed it is! How solid and ingenuous, rich and subtle" 

It is humiliating being Canadian these days as we watch our political troglodytes braying in the House of Commons about who among their pathetic ranks are the more Machiavellian . . . those who precipitated this crisis of governance with an a-historic economic outlook and stupidly timed partisan assault, or the coalition of the dispossessed who must have been licking its lips at the opportunity provided to gain power through the callousness of the governing party.

Why "callousness"? Because people struggling in dark times have no need of hyper-partisan gamesmanship. They need leadership, and this is as true of a CEO as it is of a prime minister or backbencher. And if there is evidence of leadership in our politics today, I can't find it.

There are lessons in this mess for CEOs I think.

Leadership is about humility, responsibility, putting the future of the whole (the demos in politics; customers, communities, employees and ALL shareholders in business) ahead of petty ambition and partisan concerns or, in business terms, ahead of quarterly earnings expectations for example.

Leadership is about being a servant to a greater good, and not a master of self-interest. Abraham Lincoln once said "Nearly all men can stand adversity. But if you want to test a man's character - give him power." The character of our political "leadership" has been recently tested with power and it has been found profoundly wanting: The character of some global  business leaders has also been examined (and has some tough tests yet to come) and it too has been found deficient in too many ways.

Take a look at what French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy said about his friend, the French president Nicholas Sarkozy, in his latest book called Left in Dark Times:

"Now I hear the clannish, feudal, possibly brutal Sarkozy that his opponents denounced, and which I never wanted to believe in: a man with a warrior vision of politics, who hystericizes (sic) relations, believes those who aren't with him are against him, who doesn't care about ideas, who thinks interpersonal relations and friendship are the only things that matter."

Now think about leaders in politics (even in some businesses) today in Canada . . . profoundly wanting indeed.

Former senior journalist and media executive Adrian Monck, who blogs at --well -- Adrian Monck has come out with an apparently critical book called Can You Trust the Media which according to one commentary argues the need to "understand the media's limitations and its boundaries, and make information as freely available as possible."

9781840468724

I'll buy that . . . and indeed Monck's book, although it seems the only place it is available at the moment is the U.K.'s The Parliamentary Bookshop. There you can also add to your check-out cart, these two. . . 

1842751360  9780745326887

There are two words that dominate reputation discourse these days -- transparency and authenticity. Both are beginning to feel worn out, as dogma has a tendency to do when it lacks substance and proof.

But some companies give the words meaning. Writing in The Globe and Mail a couple of weeks ago, Fabrice Taylor congratulated Gold Fields Ltd. CEO Nick Holland for "revolutionizing the way the industry (gold mining) portrays itself. Here is what Gold Fields has decided to do:

"So Gold Fields management has decided to buck the industry trend and tell the company's owners the total cost of mining an ounce of gold, from operations (labour, power and so on) to capital investment (the cost of buying long-life equipment, extending a mining shaft etc.)"

So what's the big deal? From a financial perspective providing information on "total cost" gives shareholders a better sense of projected cash flow since you have to make capital investments with, well, cash. (Naysayers will point out, as one analyst does, that this may allow you to game the numbers in the future simply by altering capital expenditures.)

The important issue here is that Mr. Holland's actions are evidence of the transparency we have all been talking about at least dating from Don Tapscott and David Ticoll's book The Naked Corporation. Mr. Holland (disclosure - not a client) recognizes that admitting total costs gives a better picture of potential revenues, especially when gold prices are rising.

Enterprise201-211x300 As my colleague Niall Cook writes in his new book Enterprise 2.0, some believe that transparency "simply doesn't reflect the real world" in which companies have no choice but to keep business secrets. The point, though, is that some like Mr. Holland are apparently looking for ways to gain trust, if not advantage,  by pushing reporting boundaries. The effect on share price, or buy-side analyst recommendations, may be slight, but the "trust" will stick to Gold Fields' reputation at least among some mining industry watchers and critics. And that in itself may mean being open around total costs will be worth it.

This statement may lack humility but I have argued long and often (without much effect I'm afraid) that NGOs and advocacy groups are more skilled at using social networks than most corporations which have many times the monetary and personnel resources. Penury apparently fosters ingenuity, flexibility, and speed I guess.

Anyway, there is a new book out called Mobilizing Generation 2.0 that according to danah boyd is a "how-to guide to help those who want to mobilize using the web, focusing on how organizers can leverage blogging, social network sites, photo/video sharing, mobile phones, wikis, maps and virtual worlds." boyd herself has an essay in the book about the online world as a form of "public space" (or as I have called it, again immodestly, a new' demos').

I'll take a look, as should any corporate communicator who may face angry citizens armed with participatory technologies. And which company can say it hasn't . . . or won't?

While on vacation, I have been reading David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous (a tough slog for the first eighty-odd pages, but much more grounded and interesting after that). A chapter on 'Social Knowing' stands out for what it explains about Wikipedia's role in "delaminating of authority and knowledge" and how knowledge now has "no knower" per se.

The problem, though, is many people (danah boyd for one) trying to confront misinformation about their company or themselves in Wikipedia articles are finding it may not be striving as hard as it should to reach its goal of achieving a neutral point of view (NPOV) with its articles.

Weinberger says "Wikipedia provides the metadata surrounding an article -- edits, discussions, warnings, links to other edits by the contributors -- because it expects the reader to be actively involved, alert to the signs."

But in my limited experience, joining the conversation about an article when you are representing a corporate POV is not so easy (unless you are with the CIA or Vatican apparently). If, as Weinberger also says, "Authority now comes from enabling us inescapably fallible creatures to explore the differences among us, together", shouldn't corporate voices be able to expose weaknesses and errors, assuming they are speaking the truth and can prove it?

It would help if Wikipedia were more explicit about how an organization can correct polemic disguised as neutrality or misinformation as fact even if the correction is made by someone from the public relations department.

An artist friend of mine is exhibiting at Lennox Contemporary gallery in Toronto this month. Snaige Sileika's works are gentle, painterly and more true to the heart of the country than you would expect for a city woman. We met her and her husband (Antanas, a remarkable novelist about whom I have posted before) in Paris in 1978 when she was studying at the Ecole des Beaux Art and have been friends ever since. I am not very analytic about art, but I am so delighted by the comfort her paintings (and lithographs -- the real thing, not those so called "limited edition prints" which are really signed and numbered photographs) bring we have built a good collection. Take a look and tell me what you think.

The sadness of the writer is there is always someone who says better what you feel about an idea or emotion than you do. Only part way through Julian Barnes' elegant and moving novel Arthur & George, I have already recognized two examples of the kind of powerful summation of a closely felt concept I wish I had been able to express. If you can't write the words yourself, the next best thing is to quote them . . . On religion, the soul and the need to keep looking: "Arthur had been educated, during those most plastic years, in the school of medical materialism. Any residue of formal religion had been expunged; yet he remained metaphysically respectful. He admitted the possibility of a central intelligent cause, while being unable to identify that cause, or understand why its designs should be brought to fulfilment in such roundabout and often terrible ways. As far as the mind and soul went, Arthur accepted the scientific explanation of the day (the late 19th century -- BN note). The mind was an emanation of the brain, just as bile was an excretion of the liver -- something purely physical in character; while the soul, as far as such a term could be admitted, was the total effect of all the hereditary and personal functionings of the mind. But he also recognized that knowledge never stayed still, and that today's certainties might become tomorrow's superstitions. Therefore, the intellectual duty to continue looking never ceased." And of the blithe way in which most people stutter step their way through life: "Life. How easily everyone, including himself, said the word. Life must go on, everyone routinely agreed. And yet how few asked what it was, and why it was, and if it was the only life or the mere amphitheatre to something quite different. Arthur was frequently baffled by the complacency with which people went on with . . . with what they insouciantly called their lives, as if both the word and the thing made perfect sense to them." I am usually baffled but always up to the challenge of looking.
The remarkable thing about New York is you can be disappointed one minute and elated the next. I waited for 20 minutes at the Walter Kerr Theatre to get a ticket to see Doubt (see my post from Wednesday) to find that the only ticket available for the final performance of Cherry Jones in the title role cost US$176, and there were only a couple of those left. (Forget TKTS . . . no 1/2 price tickets for this show.) A bit out of my price range for this trip anyway. However, as happens all the time in New York, or so it seems to an occasional visitor like me, just ahead of me in line was a young woman who evidently loved theatre and mentioned having found Edward Albee's Seascape, in her words, "profoundly moving". A short jog back to Times Square and TKTS, a somewhat longer wait in line, and 45 minutes later I had a ticket to the Albee play on what turns out to be its last -- and sold-out -- performance! Seascape won Albee a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, and it has aged well, helped along in this revival by a sad and sensitive performance by Frances Sternhagen. Her character's relationship with her husband Charlie, played with an odd, slightly Southern twang by George Gizzard (who remarkably won a Tony Award for his role in Albee's 1966 play A Delicate Balance), will echo deeply in any long-married couple who, having raised kids and been relatively happy, are trying to agree on what to do with the rest of their lives together. Their heartbreaking banter sees Nancy (Sternhagen) yearn for a life lived fully until it ends, with Charlie simply ready for his "well-deserved rest".
That's the first act . . . the second act sort of falls apart into a somewhat comic expressionistic fantasy as Charlie and Nancy are confronted by two lizards named Leslie (Frederic Weller) and Sarah (Elizabeth Marvel) emerging from the sea to test the waters on land so to speak. Charlie tries to convince them they are better off not starting the evloutionary process all over again, while Nancy urges them to stay and evolve. Why, both in the context of the first act, and given the sorry state of many things in the world today, is a mystery to me . . . I will have to buy the script and give it some more thought. After all, apparently the play is closing today and I don't think I'll wait 30 years until it comes around on Broadway again. Now . . . where to go for dinner (see Wednesday's post)?
I don't want to disappoint anyone who read my previous post and is waiting for my judgment on Edeet Ravel's A Wall of Light, which I have now finished, but I have to digress a little first. The city in which I live has just experienced the kind of gun violence with which my American friends in New York and L.A. are more familiar. On December 26th a fifteen-year-old girl in our city was the innocent victim of a gang shoot-out in a busy downtown shopping district. The scum involved will be caught . . . if the families and communities which are home to the gang members stand up for the innocent. This kind of gang violence is generally unheard of in Canadian cities, although we have steadily seen an increase in gang and drug-related shootings in particular neighborhoods. Of course, we are now hearing from politicians, and community and police spokespeople about the various remedies for this gun violence . . . more severe penalties, more funding for youth programs, stronger family units, stricter border controls (sorry American friends, but most of the guns are smuggled in from the U.S.). I just don't know what the answer is. Will more youth programs in underprivileged communities really prevent young people from joining gangs? If offered jobs, will they take them? Will the men in these communities ever take responsiblity for the children they sire; and will the women ever stop thinking that these punks are -- in some perverse way -- attractive mates? Is there anything to be done about the kind of music ('Fiddy' as a case in point) which glorifies gangsta lifestyles? Anyone got any ideas? So . . . now to Ravel's novel. It is mostly satisfying, but certainly not life-altering, and says not enough about what the people who live in the Middle East really experience about life in that pressure cooker of a world. A series of vaguely connected self-reflections by a number of inter-related characters, the really interesting characters are not given the attention I think they deserve . . . Noah, a young boy who reluctantly joins the Israeli army, makes a short career of avoiding fighting and ends up studying art in Berlin and Kostya, a brilliant young Russian emigre who becomes a doctor and looks after his aunt Sonya, a deaf mathematics professor who falls in unrequited love (after a momentary episode of lust) with a sensitive Arab named Khalid. Read it for what it reveals about how people deal with various forms of pain . . . deafness, break-ups, rape, and sudden death. For me, this week, that was enough.
The pleasure of the holiday season -- besides spending time with family, snowshoeing and cross country skiing at my cottage, and watching the World Junior Hockey Championships -- is staring at all the books waiting to be read on my bedside table and realizing there is a least another week during which I can make a dent in them. Two are at the top of the swell. First there is Edeet Ravel's novel A Wall of Light, shortlisted for the Giller Prize although not the eventual winner. She is a Canadian writer born on a Marxist kibbutz near the border with Lebanon, now living in a small city not far from me. Her ambivalence in the novel about Israel's role in the Middle East is unmistakable (frequent references to the "occupation" of various pieces of contested territory, for example). But her characters are so quirky and likeable (a deaf Math professor who falls in love with an Arab taxi driver) that these slightly wicked political undertones can be ignored, even by supporters of Israel (me among them). I haven't finished yet, so no final judgment passed. Next in line is Harold Bloom's Jesus and Yahweh, an odd choice for someone who is devoutly uncertain about the existence of anything spiritually "divine". What put this book on the bedside table is the quotation on the jacket cover . . . "There is not a sentence concerning Jesus in the entire New testament composed by anyone who ever met the unwilling King of the Jews." And another one in the introduction which refers to all the writings in the New Testament as "tendentious: their designs upon us, as readers or auditors, are palpable and conversionary." How do you like that for controversy! That should take me to New Year's Day . . .
More (read the previous post) from Marquez' Memories of My Melancholy Whores . . .

"He had the notable vice of a smart appearance." How many women have fallen for men that only have that going for them, even if the look is a beater and pants slung too low?

"I always had understood the dying of love was mere poetic licence . . . (but) I would not have traded the delights of my suffering for anything in the world. I had spent more than fifteen years trying to translate the poems of Leopardi, and only on that afternoon did I have a profound sense of them: Ah me, if this is love, then how it torments." And how many people -- unfortunately often the young -- in fact enjoy the "torment" as much as the consummation, as does Marquez's 90-year-old narrator. What else can explain the voyeurism of Oprah, Dr. Phil and the horrible "Bachelor" shows?

It has been a long time since I read anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I had assumed that by now he was dead. But after reading a review in yesterday's Sunday NYT's of Marquez's new book Memories of My Melancholy Whores, I picked up a copy (and set aside Zadie Smith's On Beauty for the moment) to have something to read while traveling today on business.

I am not far on in it, although it has to be the skinniest novel on the bookshelves theses days, but there is a passage which is vintage Marquez (from what I remember anyway) and profound in what it says about getting older . . . "The truth is that the first changes are so slow they pass almost unnoticed, and you go on seeing yourself as you always were, from the inside, but others observe you from the outside."

There are also passages in the first few pages that are shocking in their power . . . "I don't have to say so because people can see it from leagues away: I'm ugly, shy, and anachronistic. But by dint of not wanting to be those things I have pretended to be just the opposite." This kind of honesty about self escapes most of us. But reading it pushes you to reflect on how you are seen and what pretenses you assume in order to hide the parts of yourself you wish weren't there.

This reading should be a geat, if short, journey.

I have been meaning to scribble for some time about a friend of mine who writes fiction. Antanas Sileika's third novel, published in hardcover in 2004 by Random House of Canada Ltd., is called Woman in Bronze and has just come out in softcover. It received decent reviews on its initial release and was listed by The Globe and Mail (which likes to think of itself as our country's answer to the New York Times) as one of the top 100 books of 2004. The story follows a young Lithuanian sculptor as he moves from a tiny farm in his war-torn country to the Paris of Josephine Baker and the Folies Bergere.

This may be Antanas' third published novel, but it's at least the seventh he has actually written over the last thirty years. I first met Antanas and his wife Snaige (herself an accomplished lithographer and painter) in Paris in 1979. I wrote an article for Books in Canada magazine about young Canadians living the dream that brought Americans and Canadians - including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway -- to Paris fifty years earlier in 1929, a world captured so evocatively in Morley Callaghan's That Summer in Paris (which, apropos of nothing, was given a really stupid review by Norman Mailer in the NYT in 1963). For my article, I interviewed the young Antanas just before his first short story was to be published in a literary magazine called Paris Voices (fame came quickly to the lad . . . lol!), and we have remained close friends ever since.

I admire two things about Antanas (besides his love of partying, appreciation of good wine and unpastuerized Camembert, and his first-rate cooking skills): first, he has held on to his dream of being a novelist after rejections that would deaden the soul of a weaker person; second, he has remained true to the tradition of storytelling.

What I like about his three published novels -- and why, on the contrary, I still haven't finished Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated -- is that they are effortless, well-told stories which uncover simple truths about those of us who are 'merely' ordinary. They can be read in a single sitting, and afterwards you feel better about life and the people in it.

Perseverance and truth-telling . . . not at all shabby qualities in a writer . . . and a friend.

Having heard that Nick Hornby's latest book was about four people who meet while preparing to commit suicide, A Long Way Down remained for a few extra weeks at the bottom of my must-read list. Who needs another depressing contemporary novel when the world at times seems filled with almost apocalyptic sadness? Of course, that proved wrong. And I should have known better having read High Fidelity (and seen the film ) and How to be Good. Hornby changes a reader's life by holding up a mirror to the ordinary, through ordinary people, yet still managing to ask the "big questions" as the book jacket says. His writing is so smooth, easy and fun that you don't really know you've just confronted the rather complex matter of your own life's purpose. No, I don't have an answer yet. Maybe I'll just have to read it again! Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days -- a written triptych -- is simply rapturous in its poetry, and sweeping in its scope . . . and not just because one of the recurring characters speaks lines from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. A review in the London Review of Books by Jacqueline Rose reckons the sum of the novel better than I could . . . "This is Cunningham’s most ambitious novel and, for me, his finest. Leaves of Grass is the text spoken by the characters, but he has named his novel after Specimen Days, which brings the ecstasy of Whitman’s poem back to ground: it was, as Whitman explains, written from the impromptu jottings of his ‘gloomy experiences’ of the war as he sat beside the corpses of the dead, and at Temple Creek where he was recovering from the paralytic stroke that had prostrated him. Folding one Whitman inside the other, Cunningham leaves open the question whether the ills of culture, his nation’s capacity for desolation, can ever be redeemed by the poet’s – or the novelist’s – vision."