“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 have spelling bees. Would-be doctors and lawyers still need to memorize reams and reams of material for their board exams. And we need to remember certain basic 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 most 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.
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.
As an experiment in encouraging memorization for the noble purpose of learning and recalling great literature, TheBestSchools.org has resurrected a Scripture memory course that was popular over 30 years ago. We’d like your feedback on this course, especially how its approach to memorization might be generalized to other great literature.
Click here to access the course. As you use it to memorize, think of Solzhenitsyn’s advice to “own only what you can always carry with you.”