Memory and Truth(iness)

My friend, Yangsze Choo, recently came out with her third book, The Fox Wife. It’s a murder mystery set in early 20th century northern China, and it’s got some mystical elements as well. It’s entertaining and immersive, and it’s been racking up awards.

Last month, she gave a talk in San Francisco about the book, and someone in the audience asked about her writing process. She explained that there are two kinds of writers: Those who outline, and those who just write. She is apparently one of the latter.

I am astounded by folks who write novel-length works this way. Her revelation reminded me of something I read 30 years ago about Victor Hugo and his thousand page plus classic, Les Misérables. Victor Hugo was normally a consummate reviser, except for when he wrote Les Misérables. He was so passionate about the political statement he was making, he ended up writing the massive tome cover-to-cover over the course of 20 years. This feat seemed so extraordinary to me that I’ve remembered it clearly for three decades and have thought about it many times.

Too bad I remembered this incorrectly.

Yangsze’s talk and my (what-I-thought-was-correct) memory of what Victor Hugo had done had inspired me to blog about a tension I often see in my work between planning and “going with the flow.” Under normal circumstances, I might have just mentioned the connection and let my thoughts flow from there without doing any additional work. However, I’m generally anal about sourcing, and I’ve also found writing difficult recently, so I decided to see if I could find my original source.

First, I searched the Internet. Nothing, not even a different source repeating the claim. I thought for a moment about where I could have read this. It was definitely in high school, and I didn’t have access to exotic sources back in the day, so it had to be something relatively accessible. Then I pounded my forehead. Of course! It was in the foreword of my copy of Les Misérables!

Fortunately, I still have my original tattered copy on my bookshelf, so I picked it up and started re-reading the foreword, which was written by Lee Fahnestock, one of the translators. According to Fahnestock, Hugo started writing this novel in 1845, then stopped after three years, only to pick it up again a dozen years later.

In 1860 he finally returned to Les Misérables, the book he had never expected to complete, and wrote through to the end. Then, in a move quite uncharacteristic of this writer who preferred to move forward rather than revise, he went back to insert many sections that brought the book into line with his liberalized views and perspectives gained offshore.

I’m not sure if I mis-remembered or mis-read this. Most likely the latter.

I’m realizing that I’m quite fond of reading the front-matter in books. Maybe it’s because, upon actually completing the book, writers understand more clearly what they want to say. Maybe it’s because I start many more books than I actually finish. In any case, I recently started reading Marc Hamer’s, How to Catch a Mole: Wisdom from a Life Lived in Nature, who writes in his Prologue:

I wonder about truth and what it is as I chase it around and play with it. Recollections rarely come in chronological order. Memory wanders in the darkness, and the harder I try to remember, the more it seems to dissolve in front of me and take a different direction. As soon as I start to examine a story with anything more intense than a sidelong glance, it shifts in reaction to the scrutiny, reconstructs itself and then changes again, like looking into a kaleidoscope: the colours are identical, their patterns slightly different every time, their detail constantly changes yet the picture remains true to itself

Learning How to Boil Eggs: From Toni Morrison to J. Kenji López-Alt

Deviled eggs courtesy of Dina and Lola. They were as tasty as they look.

I learned how to boil eggs from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which I first read 30 years ago. Every time I boiled an egg, I could see her vivid imagery in my head:

In the heartbeat of silence that followed his shouts, Pilate laughed.

“You all want a soft-boiled egg?” she asked.

The boys looked at each other. She’d changed rhythm on them. They didn’t want an egg, but they did want to be with her, to go inside the wine house of this lady who had one earring, no navel, and looked like a tall black tree.

“No, thanks, but we’d like a drink of water.” Guitar smiled back at her.

“Well. Step right in.” She opened the door and they followed her into a large sunny room that looked both barren and cluttered. A moss-green sack hung from the ceiling. Candles were stuck in bottles everywhere; newspaper articles and magazine pictures were nailed to the walls. But other than a rocking chair, two straight-backed chairs, a large table, a sink and stove, there was no furniture. Pervading everything was the odor of pine and fermenting fruit.

“You ought to try one. I know how to do them just right. I don’t like my whites to move, you know. The yolk I want soft, but not runny. Want it like wet velvet. How come you don’t just try one?”

She had dumped the peelings in a large crock, which like most everything in the house had been made for some other purpose. Now she stood before the dry sink, pumping water into a blue-and-white wash basin which she used for a saucepan.

“Now, the water and the egg have to meet each other on a kind of equal standing. One can’t get the upper hand over the other. So the temperature has to be the same for both. I knock the chill off the water first. Just the chill. I don’t let it get warm because the egg is room temperature, you see. Now then, the real secret is right here in the boiling. When the tiny bubbles come to the surface, when they as big as peas and just before they get big as marbles. Well, right then you take the pot off the fire. You don’t just put the fire out; you take the pot off. Then you put a folded newspaper over the pot and do one small obligation. Like answering the door or emptying the bucket and bringing it in off the front porch. I generally go to the toilet. Nor for a long stay, mind you. Just a short one. If you do all that, you got yourself a perfect soft-boiled egg.”

Of course, my cooking conditions were never quite the same as Pilate Dead’s, so I had to adapt. For example, I never bothered “knocking the chill off the water.” I figured that my tap water wasn’t as chilly as hers, but mainly, I was too lazy. For a long time, I followed her “one small obligation” rule, but my obligations were too inconsistent, and I often ended up with a harder yolk than I wanted, so I switched to using a timer.

Still, it pretty much worked, and I had the satisfaction of learning how to boil an egg from Toni Morrison. There was only one problem, as demonstrated by my nephew, Benjamin, a few years ago.

The egg white would often stick to the shell when I peeled my eggs. For many years, I thought that it was because my eggs weren’t fresh enough. Then later, I thought it was because my eggs were too fresh. This is what happens when you rely on hearsay and homespun wisdom (which includes much of what you’ll find both in books and on the Internet). Of course, I never bothered attempting to research something that felt definitive or to experiment myself. (See above re: my laziness.) I even own Harold McGee’s classic, On Food and Cooking, but I never bothered checking to see what he had to say. (That worked out in the end, because McGee’s advice and explanation are wrong.)

For years and years and years, I tolerated my pock-marked boiled eggs. Then, a few months ago, I came across the brilliant J. Kenji López-Alt’s debut article for The New York Times, where he chose to tackle this time-honored problem. I finally knew how to boil eggs correctly. (Read the article, and you’ll understand why I trust him so much.)

The water and the eggs should not be on equal standing. The water should take the upper hand. Boil it first, then add the eggs. Better yet, steam the eggs rather than boil them.

I didn’t have an excuse to test this myself until this past weekend. I had to make a butt-load of potato salad for a friend’s party, and there was no way I was going to sit around picking egg white off of the shell. So I gave López-Alt’s technique a try.


There’s undoubtedly more to say about the nature of epistemology in these times, but that will have to wait for another time. For now, I’m just happy to have solved the final piece of the puzzle regarding boiled eggs. And I’m still grateful for Toni Morrison after all these years. Who else could have emblazoned such a clear picture on my impressionable mind about something as mundane as boiled eggs?

“Collaboration” in the Public Consciousness

I was sorting through old books today, looking to get rid of a bunch, and I came across two ancient books of quotations, one from 1970, one from 1980. When I was younger, I used to use them a lot, but I hadn’t touched them in decades, and it was time for them to go.

I decided to find and record the quotes on collaboration, then give the books away. So I opened them up, and to my surprise, neither book had sections or indices on collaboration.

I realized this was an interesting way of tracking when collaboration as a concept entered more of the mainstream of public consciousness. When I get the chance, I’ll see if I can find when “collaboration” does start appearing in the index.

Google Books has a really cool feature called Ngram Viewer, which enables you to chart how often different words and phrases appear in Google’s considerable archive of scanned books, which date back to 1800. Several years ago, I searched for “collaboration,” which turned up this chart:

If I were to guess, the initial dip in 1943 is because the French word, “collaborateur,” became associated with those who were collaborating with the Nazis, and the term naturally lost favor. The term gradually returned into favor, and the most recent spike started in 1982. It will be interesting to see if the inquiry into quotation books lines up with this data.

Baselines and Narratives

I haven’t read Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s Shattered about Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign, but I have found the reviews and their virality fascinating. Here’s what the New York Times, National Review, and Rolling Stone had to say. The reviews are mediocre at best.

There is something lurid and compelling about reading a retrospective about a failed campaign. It’s like looking at a train wreck — it’s hard to tear your eyes away, even if you want to. Unlike a train wreck, however, it’s hard to assess how “bad” Clinton’s campaign actually was, and what I’m reading about the book doesn’t seem to help.

In my experience working with organizations and their leaders, including some very good ones, there is a baseline of dysfunction that would surprise most people. Internal effectiveness and good strategy matter (which is what keeps me employed), but they’re not the only factors that contribute to success. You have to be very careful about attribution bias, especially when dealing with complex, systemic challenges.

So far, most of the retrospectives and commentary I’ve read have reeked of attribution bias.

The one thing that stuck out for me in reading the reviews were the points about Clinton’s lack of a clear narrative. The National Review, for example, wrote:

In Shattered, we learn that ten speechwriters, consultants, and aides had a hand in writing Clinton’s announcement speech, which unsurprisingly turned out to be a long, muddled mess. Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau, briefly brought in to help, concluded that the speech (and by extension, the whole campaign) “lacked a central rationale for why Hillary was running for president, and sounded enough like standard Democratic pablum that, with the exception of the biographical details, could have been delivered by anyone within the party.”

Again, I see this all the time working with leaders. It’s hard to identify a clear and compelling narrative and to stay on message, but it’s important. In their book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath attribute this challenge to the Curse of Knowledge. Effective leaders have lots of knowledge, but that knowledge can get in the way of telling a clear story.

Learners and Teachers

In his Foreword to Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, Michael Chabon writes:

It is the way of confidence men and tricksters to sell you what you already own; but a great writer, in so doing, always finds a way to enrich you by the game.

The same applies to great teachers, too. Pondering this as I think fondly and appreciatively about one of my great teachers.

Thanks to Neil Kandalgaonkar for recommending this book.