“Own only what you can always carry with you,” wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag Archipelago. “Know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag. Use your memory! Use your memory! It is those bitter seeds alone which might sprout and grow someday.”
The Gulag Archipelago is Solzhenitsyn’s account of life, or what was left of it, in the Soviet concentration camps. From the time of arrest through the show trials to being imprisoned or set to work as slave laborers, inmates owned only what they could always carry with them, namely, themselves, and in particular, their memories.
We live in an age where memory seems less and less important. Anything we might want to know seems instantly available through the Internet. And yet there’s a sense in which the information in cyberspace is never really ours, never internalized, never part of our very being—unless it becomes a living and breathing reality in our memory.
Even in this age of the Internet, the importance of memory has not been entirely forgotten. We still enjoy spelling bees. Would-be doctors and lawyers still need to memorize reams and reams of material for their board exams. And we can’t make do without memorizing some very basic facts, such as remembering the rules of the road to get our drivers license.
But there’s a sense in which all such memory work is superficial and extrinsic. All this knowledge can readily be recovered online, and much of it is quickly forgotten once we take the necessary tests.
Every technology changes the way we learn and retain information. The Internet, however, seems to put a premium on not committing things to memory. Instead, we remember how to search and find things on the Internet. Nonetheless, committing things to memory still beckons us.
Ours is an extremely competitive age in which any skill can become the focus of competition. Memory is one such skill. Thus, since 1991, Tony Buzan and Raymond Keene have organized the World Memory Championships, in which memorizing the most digits, dates, names, and faces becomes the point of the competition.
The American Alex Mullen is the 2015 and 2016 winner of this competition, holding the title “Memory Grandmaster.” On his website, Mullen provides techniques for memorizing particular facts, such as the presidents of the United States:
Such techniques have their uses (Mullen is a medical student and so needs to memorize lots of facts about the human body). It’s not clear, however, what the value of such memory competitions is, except to demonstrate the human capacity for memory (as might interest a cognitive psychologist).
Yet one of the few places where memory is still valued for its own sake, where we count memory work as not merely something that we might just as well train an animal or robot to do, is memorizing inspiring religious or poetic passages that people have found deeply meaningful over the ages.
We can internalize such passages. We can recite them to ourselves slowly, drinking in their riches. Above all, they can become part of us and make us better people. What, then, to memorize? That’s up to you. But choose something profound that doesn’t merely confirm your prejudices, something that will challenge you and get you to think and rethink.
Solzhenitsyn wrote many such memory-worthy passages. Consider the following from his book The Gulag Archipelago, cited above, about the Soviet slave-labor camps in which he was for many years a captive. His captors were, no doubt, the bad guys and the captives, like himself, the good guys, right? Not so according to Solzhenitsyn:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?