22 February 2011

Memorable and Forgettable

Ehem...I am probably too easily bugged by things like this. But, hey...that's what a blog is for, right? To be petty when one gets the urge--to purge the bile that builds whenever one encounters occasional pieces in our notable newspapers, journals and magazines: pieces of writing, often fluff, but sometimes "serious" opinion calls attention to the author of the piece rather than what is being discussed, essayed, or reported.

After the brief bit about how we have come to simply commodify every single thing we possibly can--devaluing the very things to which we assess value, in this case the "word", or language and thought and education--a friend sent me a link to a piece in the NYT Magazine about "Memory Champions". It's a fairly long piece discussing the fact that a good memory is not something that one is necessarily born with (though I suppose we're all born with roughly the same capacity) but rather a skill that can be learned and attained with training and discipline...like sports, or...poker. The piece is about the author's intention to learn the "art" or "sport" and then become a Memory Champion. He calls this "participatory journalism": I call it opportunistic careerism or maybe "seeking after recognition". He tells us a bit about how it's done and gives us a very brief tour of the history of the practice (without single reference to the scholar that really pioneered our modern understanding of the practice--Frances Yates). Then he details some of the science but really is interested in detailing his success (he wins, yay!).

The author, it turns out, has parlayed his participatory journalism into a big payday, and likely this particular piece is simply marketing for his forthcoming book (and film!). From the Wikipedia:
Joshua Foer is a freelance journalist living in New Haven, with a primary focus on science. In November 2006, Foer sold his first book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, for a reported $1.2 million to Penguin for publication in 2009.[1] According to Variety, Paramount Pictures bought the rights to adapt the book for the screen.[2]

In 2006, Foer won the U.S.A. Memory Championship "speed cards" event by memorizing a deck of 52 cards in 1 minute and 40 seconds. [3] Moonwalking with Einstein describes Foer's journey as a participatory journalist to becoming a national champion mnemonist.

Foer's work has appeared in The New York Times,1 The Washington Post,[1] Slate,[2] and The Nation.[3] In 2007, the quarterly art & culture journal Cabinet began publishing Foer's column "A Minor History Of." The column "examines an overlooked cultural phenomenon using a timeline."[4]

My annoyance, other than this piece being barely a third-rate Gladwellianism, is that this is abject "literary nepotism". This young author, Joshua Foer (and indeed he is quite young), is the youngest brother of those connected darlings of the publishing industry Franklin Foer (editor of the New Republic) and Jonathan Safran Foer, novelist and now activist against eating the flesh of animals.

So, that just bugs me...sorry. But I suppose it's not an exception to our American rules. This is how our industries are managed, and our finances and our politics. Fathers and sons (sorry gals, you still should probably just go mix a martini and watch Mad Men).

Now, all that bile aside, there are at least two interesting paragraphs in the piece.

Living as we do amid a deluge of printed words — would you believe more than a million new books were published last year? — it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to read in the age before Gutenberg, when a book was a rare and costly handwritten object that could take a scribe months of labor to produce. Today we write things down precisely so we don’t have to remember them, but through the late Middle Ages, books were thought of not just as replacements for memory but also as aides-mémoire. Even as late as the 14th century, there might be just several dozen copies of any given text in existence, and those copies might well be chained to a desk or a lectern in some library, which, if it contained a hundred other books, would have been considered particularly well stocked. If you were a scholar, you knew that there was a reasonable likelihood you would never see a particular text again, so a high premium was placed on remembering what you read.


In his essay “First Steps Toward a History of Reading,” Robert Darnton describes a switch from “intensive” to “extensive” reading that occurred as printed books began to proliferate. Until relatively recently, people read “intensively,” Darnton says. “They had only a few books — the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two — and they read them over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness.” Today we read books “extensively,” often without sustained focus, and with rare exceptions we read each book only once. We value quantity of reading over quality of reading. We have no choice, if we want to keep up with the broader culture. I always find looking up at my shelves, at the books that have drained so many of my waking hours, to be a dispiriting experience. There are books up there that I can’t even remember whether I’ve read or not.

Memory seems first to have been, very practically, an arm of rhetoric. You can't make a very long speech without the "notes" of your memory. But then it came to serve through the Middle and Dark ages as a way to keep the world of "forbidden knowledge" alive and well (see Giordano Bruno, not so alive and well due to his memory maps).

So memory, supplanted originally by text (accounting mostly), next is marshaled to preserve the text (religious and heretic "science" mostly). If knowledge is power then a secreted memory of that knowledge might be a hidden power.

What does memory serve now? What do memory skills do for us? What is a Memory Champion?

Memory is somewhat useless without thought. One can recite Whitman without understanding Whitman, or physics formulas for that matter. In this way, the modern focus on memory as circus act or as a way to win at poker or as a way to amaze friends and strangers serves to fit into our idea of the human mind--as a machine...data in data out. Foer works hard to add gigs of RAM to his brain in order to...what? Be the star of his own Hollywood tale?

Darnton, quoted above, is of course correct. That most of us, if we read anything other than bestsellers (like this book will be promoted into being) and People-type magazines, only read "extensively" can be no surprise...how else would one read these types of things? Does Foer expect us to read his tome with deep concentration? No, it's a puff piece meant to make him money and advance his place in publishing.

This is quite a difference from the use to which Bruno put his immense skills.

There is so much to say here--tools are now considered memory and there are even neuroscientists and theorists who propose that things like our smart phones and iPad ARE actually parts of our brains, extensions of us.

We need more depth of focus, more singular attention...more thinking. Less tech and fewer carnival tricks to entertain us into irrelevance as beings.

Foer in NYT Mag

Giordano Bruno (Frances Yates)

Bruno in Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. Yes, clearly the piece is a contradiction. Not only is Foer frivolously wasting his time becoming a memory "champion" but he creates the "expansive" writing here, and in his forthcoming book, that he chides against. The act of memorizing a deck of cards serves him no purpose as a writer or a wannabe intellectual, so there's that too. Writing about the "deluge of printed words" would be interesting, and worthwhile, had it not been couched in such a stupid contest.

    I can't speak for the works of his brother's, as I have read none, but this does sound like an attempt to join them in their literary fame by any means possible. Writing "something" isn't useful or valuable, especially in the era of endless self-publication.