Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Reading and Memory

In a recent New York Times article about memory, I was fascinated by this section:

" Memory training was considered a centerpiece of classical education [as] . . . . [s]tudents were taught not just what to remember but how to remember it. In a world with few books, memory was sacrosanct.

[T]hrough the late Middle Ages, books were thought of not just as replacements for memory but also as aides-mémoire. Even as late as the 14th century, there might be just several dozen copies of any given text in existence, and those copies might well be chained to a desk or a lectern in some library, which, if it contained a hundred other books, would have been considered particularly well stocked. If you were a scholar, you knew that there was a reasonable likelihood you would never see a particular text again, so a high premium was placed on remembering what you read.

To our memorybound predecessors, the goal of training your memory was not to become a “living book” but rather a “living concordance,” writes the historian Mary Carruthers, a walking index of everything read or learned that was considered worthwhile. And this required building an organizational scheme for accessing that information. When the point of reading is remembering, you approach a text very differently from the way most of us do today. . . . If something is going to be made memorable, it has to be dwelled upon, repeated.

In his essay “First Steps Toward a History of Reading,” Robert Darnton describes a switch from “intensive” to “extensive” reading that occurred as printed books began to proliferate. Until relatively recently, people read “intensively,” Darnton says. “They had only a few books — the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two — and they read them over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness. Today we read books “extensively,” often without sustained focus, and with rare exceptions we read each book only once. We value quantity of reading over quality of reading. We have no choice, if we want to keep up with the broader culture.

While I have a family room full of bookcases, I can't say that I've read the books in them more than one time through.  Reading about this alternative way of consuming books--only a few, over and over--makes me wonder if I'm missing out on being able to think deeply about one single tome.  I'll probably not change--too many good books out there I want to read.


Judy said...

This is a topic that intrigues me as I see the memorization capacity of our students plummet. Why memorize when information is always at your fingertips? However, by not having a store of knowledge in their OWN brains, they often have little context for the information that they read. It seems a shallow way to approach learning.
Great post.

Artax said...

My brother Nathan once told me he thought it was a waste of time to read anything twice, given the number of books out there to read. I not only disagreed, I laughed at him. And still laugh at him.

I think many technical textbooks are still written to help students commit them to memory, although perhaps unconsciously. And yes, one does read one's calculus textbook a lot differently than one reads a novel, because it must be internalized.


Chad Anselmo said...

I actually really enjoyed the rest of the article which goes on to explain how to become a great re-caller of sequences. I read it two weeks ago, and I still think about it daily; A fascinating read.