Caution: Externalized Memories Ahead

Joshua Foer at the Athanius Kircher Society Meeting, 2007
Joshua Foer, a young writer who also happens to be the younger brother of both novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and former New Republic editor Franklin Foer, published a book called Moonwalking with Einstein in 2011 about studying "the art of memory," an approach to memorization that was reputedly developed by Simonides of Ceos in ancient Greece wherein one would store individualized pieces of knowledge in particular places (memory loci) within an imagined physical space (your memory palace). 

The book is an easy read and isn't particularly technical, although there are some brief, interesting historical explorations and several humanistic meanderings in an attempt to answer questions Foer has about memory (in particular, there's a short discussion of epithet repetition in Homer's Odyssey that's plenty of fun to read). 

Memory has been on my mind for some time now—particularly, the benefits and pitfalls of using externalized forms of memory, e.g., writing, of course, but also different modes of recording-public discourse, like Twitter, Facebook, and this blog. I use my Twitter account now mostly as a sort of "mental brain drip collection device" (m.b.d.c.d. ?), to store thoughts and musings I'd otherwise enjoy for a moment and then forget within the hour. Other friends use Twitter primarily as a infinitely expanding reading list to record what they've read that they've enjoyed or might want to revisit, as well as articles and the like that they'd like to read but don't have the time to at the moment. 

Foer writes that externalized memories weren't always used to replace internal memory:
Today we write things down precisely so we don’t have to hold them in our memories. But through at least the late Middle Ages, books served not as replacements for memory, but rather as memory aids. As Thomas Aquinas put it, “Things are written down in material books to help the memory.” …In fact, manuscripts were often copied for no reason other than to help their copier memorize them. (140)
To the above, Foer also adds:
“…the ancient Greek word most commonly used to signify ‘to read’ was ├ínagign├│sko, which means to ‘know again,’ or ‘to recollect’” (143)
(Great cocktail fare, but also enlightening). I guess the way I used externalized memory is somewhere in between replacing my own internal memory and creating a way to help myself remember, and as I learned earlier this semester, externalizing your memories has been a thing for a long time, e.g., commonplace books, which were basically the 18th-c. pre-Tumblr. 

At the same time as I've been outsourcing more and more of my memory, I've been asked to remember more and more stuff, specifically in transcribing and memorizing solos. Thus far, I've only really learned one solo this semester (Trane on "Crescent"), but I'm working on "Dear Old Stockholm" and am daunted at the prospect of learning Trane's 14-minute (25-page long) solo on Impressions, which Miguel told me he's had other students of his memorize. My question at this point is why memorizing is still important, which might seem obvious (so that you really know something), but isn't necessarily, I think. As I've observed in my brief time working in an office, you don't really need too many technical skills w/r/t just remembering all the massive amounts of data that you're forced to undergo in academic studies, especially because looking it up on your smartphone only takes a bit longer, is generally as effective (if not more! OED > you), and, most importantly, a lot easier on your mental faculties. 

Still, Foer has a good point when he brings up the relationship between memory and creativity, the latter which he defines basically as the capacity to draw connections between different ideas (often disparate or generally not thought to be related) to direct oneself to novel ideas or approaches. He adds:
The Latin root inventio is the basis of two words in our modern English vocabulary: inventory [memory] and invention [creativity]. 
I myself keep a digital commonplace book in a Word Document (now spread over 2), which I've titled "The Garden" and "Garden 2" on my desktop. There is definitely something to be said about just going through the mechanical process of recopying text and other things that you like, simply to have the experience of learning the rhythms of what you're writing. As Joan Didion said about Hemingway in an interview:

INTERVIEWER
Did you think you could write that kind of sentence? Did you want to try?
DIDION
I didn’t think that I could do them, but I thought that I could learn—because they felt so natural. I could see how they worked once I started typing them out. That was when I was about fifteen. I would just type those stories. It’s a great way to get rhythms into your head.
I think it's the same thing when you're replaying solos—you're wiggling your fingers in the same sequence and rhythms as Trane, or Bird, or whomever. I also think that if you memorize solos, you end up practicing them without knowing it, like when you're sleeping, but this is just pure conjecture. Maybe the main reason to memorize is just to really have it as a creative resource—something that you can use to come up with new ideas, since it's much harder to retrieve externalized information as a creative resource right at the moment when it'd be most convenient or useful. Since creativity is nonlinear, you need that kind of nonlinear mode of knowledge retrieval that the brain is so good at c/w Google, where you have to already know what you want and how to find it—your brain takes care of that first part, so that it's already there when you need it (hopefully).

I keep a lot of lists now, like my good reads list and my list of things I've bookmarked on YouTube; what's become apparent, though, is that I don't have enough time to realistically go through more than 10-15% of what I've flagged as having been interesting enough to revisit, especially since I'm constantly getting more recommendations by other people (which is a whole other topic in itself—the cult of recommendations: love/hate?), so it makes sense that memorizing and internalizing is even more important now that we effectively have less time to make sense of all there is in the whole—instead, I should gradually expand what I keep close to me in my own memory as I continue to expand the contents of my externalized memory at a much faster rate.

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