Psalm 77:11-12

But then I recall all you have done, O Lord; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago. They are constantly in my thoughts. I cannot stop thinking about your mighty works.

Socrates predicted that as people became more and more accustomed to writing things down, as well as reading the thoughts of others, that they would become less dependent on their memory. You wouldn’t need to memorize anything anymore. You could just look it up.


But what happened as the written word became more popular back in the day was that people were supplied with a much more diverse supply of the thoughts and stories of others. The culture of deep reading actually encouraged the commitment of printed information to memory. Instead of memorizing only from what was narrowly available and what society determined memorization-worthy, people now were inspired to chart their own course of reading and memorization.

So, in worrying that books would weaken memory, Socrates was, as Italian novelist and scholar Umberto Eco says, expressing “an eternal fear: the fear that a new technological advancement  could abolish or destroy something that we consider precious, fruitful, something that represents for us a value in itself, a deeply spiritual one.” The fear in this case proved to be misplaced. Books actually provide a supplement to memory, as we shall see. They also, as Eco puts it, “challenge and improve memory; they do not narcotize it.” But a technology would later arrive and serve to narcotize…

The Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, in his 1512 textbook De Copia, stressed the connection between memory and reading. He encouraged his students to write town in a notebook anything interesting or important to them as they were reading. Writing these excerpts out in longhand, and rehearsing them regularly, would help ensure that they remain fixed in the mind. These passages were like “kinds of flowers” plucked from the pages of books to be preserved in the pages of memory.

Erasmus had memorized huge amounts of classic literature as a schoolboy. So much so that it would probably blow our minds today and of course we  probably do not see the point it now. But he was not memorizing for memorization’s sake or as a rote exercise in retaining facts. To him, memorizing was far more than just a means of storage. It was the first step in the process of synthesis, a process that led to a deeper and more personal understanding of one’s reading. He believed, as the classical historian Erika Rummel explains, that a person should “digest or internalize what he learns and reflect rather than slavishly reproduce the desirable qualities of the model author.” This is far from a mechanical, mindless process. It engages the mind fully. It required, Rummel writes, “creativeness and judgement.”

The Roman Seneca eloquently spoke of the role memory plays in our reading and thinking: “We should imitate bees, and we should keep in separate compartments whatever we have collected from our diverse reading, for things conserved separately keep better. Then diligently applying all the resources of our native talent, we should mingle all the various nectars we have tasted, and then turn them into a single sweet substance, in such a way that, even if it is apparent where it originated, it appears quite different from what it was in its original state.”

Our memory, as we shall see from neuroscience, is as much a crucible as a container. It is much more than merely a bunch of things remembered. It is something ever newly made.

I can witness to the efficacy of writing down what moves me from various places, and assimilating them. One example of the fruit of this is what we’ve called the “Guiding Principles” and on the Ripple Effect website here. By writing things down and reviewing them often, ideas become your own. None of us are coming up with anything truly original, so we may as well steal what we find and synthesize it to make it our own unique life-enhancing wonderfulness.

More tomorrow…

This info comes from Nicholas Carr’s excellent book from the picture above.
Fascinating, enlightening book.

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In the Name of Jesus,
Soli Deo Gloria

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