Nathan Schneider defends the memory theater

An essay published in Open Letters Monthly.

What concerns me about the literary apocalypse that everybody now expects—the at least partial elimination of paper books in favor of digital alternatives—is not chiefly the books themselves, but the bookshelf. My fear is for the eclectic, personal collections that we bookish people assemble over the course of our lives, as well as for their grander, public step-siblings. I fear for our memory theaters.

Any essay of lamentation about the end of books and the glory of human memory has to include some touchstones. Frances Yates is that touchstone here:

One of the books that I used to habitually pick up from my college library, and which, recently, I finally bought used, is Frances Yates’s classic The Art of Memory. First published in 1966, it chronicles lost mnemonic techniques, passed down from the ancient orators to the Renaissance humanists: spaces people would conjure in their minds to help them remember all the precious accoutrements of civilized knowledge.

The Art of Memory

One of the pleasures of writing incessantly online is the likelihood that you've run across something before, even if you don't have it in the top of memory. Prentiss Riddle wrote about The Art of Memory in 2003, apparently because I mentioned it on a mailing list, saying this:

[Frances Yates], [The Art of Memory] — just getting started on this one, which is an account of the history of mnemotechnics: the art and practice of expanding and augmenting the human memory. The classical account of this goes back to Simonides of Ceos, who had memorized all of the names and seating arrangements of the attendees at a banquet while giving a speech to them and was thus able to identify the dead when the banquet hall collapsed. Ancient orators used these memory systems to memorize long, long speeches.

Now, armed with a new word "mnemotechnic", I can go through and pluck out this precious specimen from Google Books; the Phreno-mnemotechnic dictionary, a work from 1844 by Francis Fauvel-Gourand with a preface that illustrates the noted figures in the history of those who have an exceptional memory. The bulk of the work is a dictionary compiled along the principles of "soundex", where words with similar consonant structure are indexed together and given a number. Thus you will find on page 62 the entry for 382 ("homophony", "muffin"); to make this make sense, you need to get a mapping between the "m" sound and the number 3, "f" or "ph" and 8, "n" and 2, and then encode.

Could there be any practical use for this? Certainly; this is a learned synesthesia, where numbers turn into words. If you ever have had to memorize a license plate number (I am looking at one where the partial plate is "6981") you know it's hard. But knowing that 69 maps to "sheep" and 81 maps to "fat" means that this vehicle can be memorialized as "sheepfat", which is wonderful in its own way.

Now where was I? Distracted, I guess. Like Nathan Schneider, my memories are indexed in part through the books I have been reading. The bookshelf that he evokes, carefully collected, is the memory construct that says that when you pull in one book you want to be able to leaf through the one next to it on the bookshelf, or the whole shelf full of them assembled for a purpose. You judge the quality of a story told through books by the quality and comprehensiveness of the books invoked to tell it, and you look for the bibliography eagerly for texts you have missed.

My bookshelves are too small to hold all the books that might sit on them, but sometimes there have been ways to make up for that. The photo of the bookshelf provides some substitute to prove not only that you have had the books but also that you know that some go together with others.

Find the book <a href="">The Art of Memory</a><img src="; width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> on Amazon.


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