Friday, February 4, 2011

Memory and Books

I just finished reading Joshua Foer's new book, Moonwalking with Einstein which is all about his one-year quest to train his own normal memory and compete in the U.S. Memory Championships. Along the way, he looks into the reasons and ways we remember, and why we don't, as a culture, spend any time trying to enhance our memories when previous generations did.

It's a fascinating, funny book, an absolute must-read (and because I'm the events guy and would be remiss not to mention it, you should also totally show up to our March 16th event with Foer). But it's got me wondering about whether we really appreciate the physicality of books as a resource and what it means that so many people are going to e-books.

Understand, I'm not anti-e-book. In fact, I'm kind of a tech geek, and I like the idea that you can download a copy of Moby Dick to your cell phone in a couple of minutes (preferably a Google Edition through our website, nudge nudge) from pretty much anywhere around the world and that you can carry around the whole of Shakespeare's works in your pocket (without even having Jnco Jeans--thank you for that, 1995).

But let me explain my concerns. From Foer's book and the techniques he uses, it's obvious that the key to improving one's memory is to engage multiple senses and to map abstract ideas or words onto physical things--he gives the odd example of one memory athlete memorizing cottage cheese on his grocery list by imagining Claudia Schiffer naked in a kiddie-pool full of it at the front door of his childhood home (incidentally, I still remember this other man's grocery list). The idea is that the human mind is made primarily for remembering evolutionarily helpful things--where something is placed, what it looks, tastes, smells, and sounds like--rather than the order of digits in a phone number, or the words in a Keats Poem (though the evolutionary benefits to memorizing Keats have been demonstrated by many "sensitive guys," it is nevertheless not something that factored into the development of our brains).

So, if you're hoping to remember something, physical interaction with it is a good thing.

This is why I worry about e-books: because when you're reading an e-book, every single page feels the same (i.e., there is no difference between holding an e-book open to the front page and holding one open to the last page), you can't mark up the text (I always underline as I go), and you have no physical sensation of turning pages or even smelling the book (smell is supposedly the most important sensual trigger to memory--maybe the much beloved smell of a book is about more than getting high on old binding glue).

When I was an English Major in college, I relied on being able to find the quotes I needed for papers, pop quizzes, and class discussions. My system was not as systematic as it perhaps should have been (if a book is good, it might have half the words underlined with no explanatory notes). But I could almost always find the quote, because I remembered how far into the book it was. I remembered which side of the page it would be on. I remembered the general shape of the paragraph it was in, the physical length of the quote and the section of underlining I had made underneath it. Even now, I will occasionally go to my shelves and pull off a book I've read just to hunt for those lines I particularly loved.

Now, my question isn't whether we'll be able to find those same lines in an e-book, because of course we could find them faster with the search function. But my concern is that, in order to know which quotes I would use later, I had to internalize them to some degree while I was reading initially. And I worry that an e-book will get rid of all those physical indicators that make you engage with a text more deeply, remember it better and benefit more from having read it.

This isn't a case against e-books, necessarily. I mean, after all, there are some books we read not to remember, but merely to experience in the moment (and I have read some, admittedly, that I wish I could forget). Plus, as someone who cannot travel down to the corner shop without packing 2-3 books, I get how it might be nice to carry your whole library with you. But I think when I finally do get around to reading Proust, it's going to be through a physical book--one that I can dog-ear and scribble in, one that I can drop barbecue sauce on, one that becomes a bit of a memory palace in its own right--the ideas within located in their own special geography with their own specific land-marks.

I think Proust would approve of that, given what I understand from my friend Jodie as she talks to me through mouthfuls of Madeleine cookies.

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