Saturday, October 10, 2009

Recipes for stories: "told" book review

mental photo—your participation needed. imagine a delicious pile of assorted macarons sitting artfully atop my copy of the book I'm reviewing. Got it? OK, then read on.

How many recipe books do you own? Go on, take a mental inventory. One? Ten? Dozens? In our house, we have shelves and shelves of them. More than a person could use in a lifetime. If that "Julie and Julia" woman needs some sequel projects, may I suggest one of my books about macarons—those little French cookies that I like to think of as heaven's version of an Oreo. The cookbooks all feature beautiful images of both savory (foie gras cookie, anyone?) and sweet (so hard to get beyond chocolate) confections, each more photogenic than the last. I believe one of the books even has the word "simple" somewhere in the title. A cruel hoax, I assure you. But then, wasn't it the French who invented Sadism?

But let's get back to you. You and your recipe books, or lack thereof. If you don't have any, then I can only conclude that either you don't cook or you don't believe in recipes. If you do, and you are not an obsessive blogger living over a pizzeria, then I bet you have made less than half the recipes.

A brief review
Which brings me to my little book review. I bought Simon Aboud's book "told" only days after arriving in Paris because, like the macaron books, I found it visually appealing and on a topic I love. The book's subtitle, "The Art of Story," fits well with the recipe book comparison (replace "story" with, oh...let's say..."French Cooking"), as do the "Twenty Principles of Storytelling" (by Paul Wilson) that appear right up front like must-haves for the well-stocked pantry. The principles are grouped by category: first principles (such as premise, genre, etc.), storyworld (cast, setting...), character, rhythm, and craft. The rest of the book is a study in combining those ingredients to achieve different effects, all accompanied by masterful photography. "She Waits," for example, uses three ingredients: "Point of View," "Exposition," and "Intrigue, Mystery, Suspense." In fact, most of the stories use only three or four ingredients. C'est simple comme "Bonjour!"

I found myself flipping through the pages many times, just admiring the photos and whatever text was in a large enough font to catch my eye. Then, stuck in a bus to Fontainebleau, I finally took time to read...

And that takes me back to my macaron obsession. You see, in my quest to replicate the perfect macaron back in America, I searched the four corners of the web for almond flour (and found it at an intestinal health site in Colorado), I acquired pistachio paste from a pastry supply store near the Rue Montorgueil, and even bought Silpat, but all for naught. My macarons were a disaster.

Scarred by that experience, my reading of "told" led me to conclude that any attempt to cook up even a simple one-ingredient dish (see "Want Me? A Story of Desire" which lists "Hook" as the one principle at play) would lead me to shelve the book in frustration. And I don't want to do that. Because, in spite of its textbook-style hardcover, I see "told" as a rich source of inspiration more than an instruction manual.Let me try to explain by quoting Aboud:
"We believe story is everywhere. In a business context, marketing or whatever, that means, very simply, communicating is no longer about only TV or cinema or press or radio or internet [...] We're suggesting that any form of engagement will be more effective if it is about storytelling." (told, 186).
Aboud's book makes me think about story across disciplines and media. It makes me think beyond the book an to reflect on other people's recipes and principles (Umberto Eco's entertaining reading of Ian Fleming comes to mind, as do the nearly impenetrable early structuralist writings of Roland Barthes, the compelling recipes for history outlined by HaydenWhite, and the work of so many theorists). But for me, inspiration wins out over didacticism every time. So I am embracing "told" in the way I first discovered it, and not in the prescriptive, pedantic way I fear it may be (mis)used in some class on "digital storytelling" (I hate that term although I love the thing itself).

Take-Out Photo and its recipes, or "Why am I even writing this review?"
As a hybrid between a series of photo essays and pedagogical text, "told" stood out from the catalogs and monographs surrounding it in the Pompidou bookstore. (That, and the fact that it's in English.) That difference made me think about my own goals for my blog. Or for the Take-Out Photo book that I will write when I finish my Nostalgia & Technology book or when someone with influence at the offices of an "independent publisher of distinctive books" subscribes to my blog and makes an offer—whichever comes first.

I admire"told" just for existing. If there were a dozen more books like it, each with its own set of storytelling principles, I would buy them all. But there are not any others. At least not that I have seen here in Paris. Like Aboud, I want to create something people will use. My tutorials give some recipes, my "monthly specials" look at themes to develop, other posts might provide a principle or two, but my end goal is to encourage myself and others to tell our stories through images. In that way, I feel a kinship with what Aboud's book is trying to do. They even have a blog just waiting for participation—two followers and three comments—and look at me, I get loads of visitors, a lot of followers, almost no comments (drives me crazy), and yet I left no comment!

How hypocritical am I?

I like the recipe book (told, macarons, take your pick), but spend my time just looking at the pictures.

I want more photos and less text, but I am writing this now at almost 3 a.m. with no photo and I want to hit "publish" before my head hits a pillow.

Yikes! Now I'm going to have to contribute something to their site. Or maybe this is already a contribution—the story of people who participate, but not always in the most direct way. Part of me finds comfort in the thought that maybe that's your story too.


michelle said...

I have to think that Aboud would be pleased that you found inspiration in his book, even if you don't plan to use it in the way it was intended. I think we all are looking for inspiration, and we all want to tell a story.

Now, to fit all that in with normal life! That is my quest.

Anonymous said...

aww Marc, where have I been?
Sick with flu(s) yes plural,and in the fog of grief.

I have kept my blog going.
Please check out my duck photohunter pic for this week. I am so pleased with it.

I have come out of the shadow of sorrow to find I reside in the wrong place. Thus I am about to move back to the city. 'Going Home'.

ON my list of things to get back to is Take Out Photo.
Ok I love cookbooks. Off to read the rest of your article. and do something about it.

Think I am ready to try Photoshop now, has there been a new release? What would you recommend NOW.?

As for your choc fashion shots wooo they'd bother me but I am allergic to chokky.

Jane of Janezworld.

Anonymous said...

this women also loves macarons!
she pants to speak.

And I heard an interview with ??? about what you discovered in 'TOLD'. I am off to buy that book tomorrow.

Fancy being stuck on a bus to Fontainebleau - how fabulous!

Jane of Janezworld

Anonymous said...

Last comment...
Google Peter Greenaway
about stories with no narrative.

He's brillant. Blew my sox off.
now there is a photo.