Memory, Then and Now

From the Times‘s obituary of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

At Ekibastuz, any writing would be seized as contraband. So he devised a method that enabled him to retain even long sections of prose. After seeing Lithuanian Catholic prisoners fashion rosaries out of beads made from chewed bread, he asked them to make a similar chain for him, but with more beads. In his hands, each bead came to represent a passage that he would repeat to himself until he could say it without hesitation. Only then would he move on to the next bead. He later wrote that by the end of his prison term, he had committed to memory 12,000 lines in this way.

In an age of cheap and widely available computer memory, such human feats increasingly seem more improbable. It is amazing what the mind (and body) can do when there are no alternatives.

You might think: Well, why should we bother to remember things when Mr. Google is always willing to do the job?

But this passage made me think of the relationship between memory and knowledge expressed by Saul Friedlander in his book When Memory Comes, citing Gustav Meyrink:

When knowledge comes, memory comes too, little by little … Knowledge and memory are one and the same thing.

This will probably ring true for anyone who has ever written a certain kind of memoir or biography: as you struggle to learn more about the context of a person’s life in decades gone by, your mind rewards you with lost memories. The most extreme recent example of this would seem to be David Carr.

Sail Boffin

Like my pappy always said (prior to the internet), there are two kinds of stuff in this world, stuff you know and stuff you know where to look up. Mr. Google just makes the latter a lot easier! Knowing how to quickly find stuff on the internet using search engines is an art in and of itself. I think my wife had an entire class in law school dedicated to phrasing search queries for legal databases like Westlaw.


Hmmm...looking at that 1980s computer memory in the picture, should you have titled the piece "memory then and then"?


Sherlock Holmes' thinking about the mind seems to flow with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's. Dr. Watson was amazed by what Sherlock Holmes DID NOT know. Holmes' response was that the mind is like a room...if you fill it with clutter (all sorts of facts, gossip, useless information, etc.--such as astronomy, politics, etc.), you will misplace those facts. But if you fill it with precisely what you need live your life...then you have a well-ordered mind.

Of course, being a fictional character, we can perhaps ignore the full extent of Holmes' statement. However, just as I keep my contact's telephone numbers and addresses either in my cell phone or in the phone book, so, too, does it behoove us, I think, to not clutter our minds with too much that is not of true importance.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn knew what was of true importance, and he sought to make it indelible upon the walls of his mind.

Henry David Thoreau seemed to argue that with all of our focus and thinking on the things of life, we fail to truly improve the truest and best parts of ourselves. We are too busy with keeping up with the Joneses--to busy with the usesless things--to let our poetic and philosophical souls rise to prominence.



my reductio ad absurdum- if memory was knowledge, computers would know vastly more than humans


Russ Roberts is the host of a Podcast called Econtalk that touched on this topic last week with the head economist at Google. Great listen if this idea is of interest to you.


Mr. Google....brings to my memory the movie Idiotcrac.y


RIP A. Solzhenitsyn


There is an absolutely wonderful book called The Art of Memory by Frances Yates that talks about this very sort of thing during antiquity and the Renaissance (e.g., giordano bruno etc.) don't know if it's still in print but any decent library should have it.