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.