Living · Reading · Teaching

The Road to Memory is Paved with Giant Teeth

I’m thinking about memory again.

My position on reading print over electronic texts is not changing. When I discussed Maryanne Wolf’s recent book, Reader, Come Home, I was looking (because she was) at the different ways we read when we read print on paper versus screen. Wolf demonstrates that we read more superficially when we read on a screen, in part because of the distractions possible through advertisements and notifications. We are more interruptible in that context, and we read more content, but much less deeply.

This weekend on the patio I had a moment.

My well-worn Penguin edition of the Prose Edda. I am a reader, not an illustrator.

I was strolling through the fertile fields of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda on Saturday for… I don’t know… maybe the thirtieth time, reading about the creation of the cosmos from the head and body of the giant Ymir. After they kill the evil frost giant, Odin and his brothers dismember him and use his parts for raw materials. They use his skull to form the dome of the heavens (and install unfortunate dwarves at the cardinal points to hold it up). The use his bones to make Midgard, the realm of humans. They use his blood to make the oceans.

This time I stopped here and pondered. It’s gross and gory, yes. And I usually just tromp right through, almost mechanically tallying the parts with their upcycled functions, so I remember them when students ask: his bones become mountains, teeth become rocks, brains become clouds. His blood becomes the oceans.

I paused. I lifted my eyes from the book and gazed for a moment into the distance as one does when contemplating spiritual truths. In mid-ponder, my partner bustled out, mid-chore, and couldn’t help but notice my philosophical stance. He asked what on earth I was doing.  

Processing. I was processing. I imagined giant blood for oceans and, put off by the sheer grossness of it all, I pushed on that image for a minute in my brain. This guy was a frost giant. What do frost giants bleed? Maybe water. Thirty times reading this, in all sorts of contexts with people way more and way less experienced than I, and it had never occurred to me that frost giants must perforce bleed water. The oceans are water.

Well, then. That’s fine.  Way less gross. Cool, even—those clever Norsefolk.

Rob was still looking at me.

And it occurred to me how I read differently online than in a book. When I’m staring at a screen, it’s much harder for me to glance away and think, so I don’t do as much questioning or imagining or connecting to other books and things I know. The screen keeps me riveted, and that keeps me in receiving mode exclusively. I read more quickly. I don’t reflect as much. And if I don’t reflect and somehow connect what I’m reading to other ideas in my head, I don’t remember as much.

Books present information in a lovely, static format. If I lift my gaze, there is no risk that when I look down again the text will be altered or gone. But virtual text taunts me with that possibility all the time—sometimes from faulty internet connection, but sometimes I hit the wrong key or place on my phone’s screen, and I lose the whole damn thing and can’t get it back. (Totally justified) comments about my technical ineptness aside, the risks are greater in the ephemeral world of electronic text, and that may be one reason why I dare not look away. And there is always the risk that some ad in the margin or some clickbait at the bottom will draw me away from the Thing I’m Trying To Read, and I’ll never wend my way back.

This has far-reaching ramifications, my friends. If we only receive a steady stream of information, and don’t give ourselves time or mental space to process it thoroughly, it’s no wonder we read more superficially.

But we also won’t remember as much.

“I’m reading,” I said to my expectant spouse. “This is what reading looks like.”


Wisdom Poetry and the Modern Mind

Y’all, I’m still on about memory. The upshot of Maryanne Wolf’s book on reading in a digital world is that the brain’s structure reflects what it does. That is, if we give it nothing but flashing ephemera, it will rewire itself to handle that well, and not to handle deep, prolonged thought. This is a problem for the future of the academy, but more importantly for the future of democracy, which depends upon the people thinking well.

Have I got your attention? Good. I want to talk about vikings.
Odin is a god of war and wisdom. What I liked most about the Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok was the scene where Hela (who is NOT Odin’s daughter in the myths, but Loki’s) breaks the ceiling and reveals the inglorious past. Odin is a war god. We sometimes forget that.
How do war and wisdom go together? Well, you can buy the Marvel reading and say after the war comes the wisdom; that works. But in the myths, Odin is a war god throughout. He fights a war against the Vanir—the fertility gods—until it’s clear no one will win, really. (Imagine how much we would save if we had that wisdom.) He visits battlefields, blessing warriors with strength and strategy, and he collects soldiers in Valhalla against the coming of Ragnarok. He is the patron of kings, part of whose job description is knowing when and how to wage war.
But he’s also the god of wisdom. The other part of the king’s job is knowing when not to fight–knowing how to support, sustain, and provide for your people. And it means knowing what it takes to ensure a civilization endures.
Old Norse myths include rollicking stories of adventure, but they’re also full of wisdom poetry. I have a whole day in my myth class devoted to wisdom texts.

These wisdom poems serve lots of functions besides painting beautiful mental images of Norse culture. They are designed to be memorized and performed, and they preserve cultural knowledge like fairy tales and other oral texts do.

They almost always feature Odin. Odin hangs himself on Yggdrasil (“The World Tree,” or more literally, “Odin’s Steed’) to learn the runes. He journeys to Jǫtunheim to challenge the giant Vafthrudnir (“Riddle-Weaver”) to a contest of knowledge. He journeys to the underworld to talk to dead witches and learn from them, and he tests others, including his own son, Thor, while in disguise. Odin never stops wanting to learn more and test how much he knows.
He shares his knowledge with kings, in an effort to improve the world. He’s a believer in trickle-down wisdom. When a king he’s trained doesn’t work out, he tests him first and then instructs and installs his replacement.  We know all this because there are numerous poems narrating his exploits and filled with stanza after stanza of truths Icelanders did not want to lose.  These texts read like the biblical Proverbs or the Welsh Triads, with small, pithy messages in series.
So they memorized Odin’s words and preserved them. In later periods they wrote them down. Snorri Sturluson, in the 13th century, tried to summarize and capture them in sort of Reader’s Digest Condensed versions, and he did so with academic interest and cultural pride. The result is that we have a good number of texts that don’t fit the adventure narrative or the divine intervention myth. In lots of them, Odin just talks.
The most famous of these is the Hávamál, or “The Sayings of the High One (Odin).” It is a long, aphoristic list of guidelines for how to behave and live well, followed by a diagogue with a king, and ending with an account of Odin’s acquisition of the runes. Its wisdom is no less pertinent today than it was in the Middle Ages.
That’s the real reason we need to remember—because we’ve learned a lot of this stuff before, and if we don’t waste time relearning, we can go farther faster.
(The Old Norse poems I refer to in these last paragraphs are the stories of Odin meeting Vafthrudnir, the Vǫlva, Thor, and the king Geirrod, and I’m happy to suggest translations if you’re interested.)
Living · Teaching

Memory, the Mother of the Arts

The Greek goddess Mnemosyne is the goddess of memory. She is the mother of the Muses. So memory gives us the arts.

The Muses are the goddesses of inspiration who bless mortals with the gifts of song, dance, and contemplation. There are muses of epic poetry (Calliope), of lyric poetry (Euterpe), of love songs (Erato), of songs to the gods (Polyhymnia), of history (Clio), of chorus and dance (Terpsichore), of tragedy and comedy (Melpomene and Thalia), and of astronomy (Urania).
All of these arts rely on memory. Creating and performing these works means holding lines of verse, tunes, and motions in your head, keeping them in order, delivering them with the grace of a goddess. If we don’t have good memories, we can’t be good artists.
For all its miracles, Google is not helping us in the memory department. Don’t get me wrong; Google is amazing and powerful. I once employed its virtuosic search engine to identify a particularly nasty bug in my bathroom. I typed “big-ass bug with too many legs” in the glowing bar, and it delivered image after image of exactly the thing: a house centipede. So I know its phenomenal capabilities.
What I worry about is how much people are coming to rely on it. Sometimes I feel like my students have very little impetus (beyond the fear of failing quizzes) to remember anything; they’ll just Google it. My partner teaches chemistry. He has seen students who know the molecular weights of elements Google the weight of a compound instead of simply adding the weights together.
This seems small, I suppose, but I think it’s probably… not small.
When we stop calculating, we slowly lose the ability to check Google’s responses. When we stop memorizing things, we forget how to. When we don’t have stories and details and random facts that we find cool stored in our heads, we have nothing from which to create new worlds and solve the problems of this one. Memory is the mother of creativity.
It behooves us, then, to increase our memory. We need to go to the mental gym, not just the muscle gym. Those things that help us remember things? They’re called mnemonics, from Mnemosyne. Here are a few that always work.
Tell a story. If you want to remember a fact or a lesson, give it a narrative. We love stories (as evidenced by the fact that squarely seven and a half of those muses work in words). If you want to teach children to stay away from strangers, you tell them “Little Red Riding Hood.” If you want to teach them multiplication tables, it works there too. (There’s a video called Times Tales that animates numbers with narratives and helps kids memorize even math facts with stories).
Make a list. When we group things together that are similar, we visualize them together and see how they connect to each other. We have a tremendous ability to remember lists, whether we make up jingles for them or see them in our mind’s eye. Thinking of things’ similarities helps us remember them.
Visit your Mind Palace. Long before the BBC Sherlock visualized his Mind Palace to recall things, medieval folks imagined mental cathedrals, slotting facts or story blocks or shopping lists in to the stained glass windows of a cathedral and imagining themselves walking through it, seeing the items in order.
There are many more. When I have my students create journals for my Myth as Literature class, I give them complete freedom to use whatever tricks they can to help them remember the stories. Some make elaborate family trees. Some draw comics of their favorite scenes. Some write Tinder biographies of all the gods. Some theme their whole journal around what drink a god or hero would order at Starbucks and why it’s appropriate.
We need to do more of this, not less. We need to figure out what method works for us individually and what has a good track record on the whole, and we need to start employing these tricks. I’m heartened by the resurgence in Commonplace Books and Art and Bullet Journaling;  there does seem to be a trend currently to write things down that we want to remember.
Whatever we do, we need to combat the tendency to offload all our knowledge in to data files and websites. Otherwise we risk not only losing our ability to be creative, but also our own stories, our own lives, in the waters of Lethe, the River of Oblivion.

The "I can Google that" Trap

It is a mistake to think we don’t need to remember anything, that we can look everything up.
It’s true the Internet is changing the way we think and learn, but the shift to teaching skills, not content, I think, is misguided.  In English departments (particularly literature programs) we have been told that the way to make our programs relevant and marketable is to teach skills that students can apply in other contexts, rather than worrying that everyone has read the same set of “classics.”
(Before we start arguing, notice I put classics in scare quotes. And understand that I don’t have a hit list or a canon of literature in mind, really. This is an argument for content, but not necessarily for specific content.)
I do think literature teaches important, transferrable skills. Close reading, understanding the context in which a work was written, analytical writing—all of these are good things and all are very useful across the job market.
But it matters, too, perhaps more than we’ve thought recently, as information changes so rapidly that people don’t bother remembering things, that we fill our heads with cool stories and beautiful works. It turns out that having material in our heads is still important.

Memorizing passages is useful. Reading widely and having lots of stories to consider and connect to one another is vital not just to looking well-read (the appeal of which should not be underestimated among English majors). It matters because we use the material, the stories and experiences we have in our memories, to help us move forward.
There has been work on this in multiple areas recently. In an article on how kids’ reading comprehension increases in step when they have exposure to more subjects and experiences (demonstrating that kids’ comprehension skills improve when they have some knowledge of the subject matter they’re reading), Daniel T. Willingham shows that kids who have broader knowledge develop reading skills faster. The more you know, the better you learn.
Another facet of this is the impact of a rich, full head on creativity. When people aren’t
encouraged to memorize anything because literally every subject can be quickly researched on the Internet, we are making it harder to be creative. Art Markman argues in his book Smart Thinking, that the more knowledge you have, the more material in your mind, the more you can mix things up and create something new. Those with less stuff in their heads have less to play with.
When I teach literature I ask my students to think about what other texts (books, movies, video games, whatever) the text at hand reminds them of. We try to build connections between stories and scenes and characters, so that the next time we encounter a Reluctant Hero, we recognize her. It stands to reason that the more stories we have in our heads, the more access points we have to understanding a new text.
But this has wide application, according to these other studies. The upshot seems to be that the more we read, the better we read; the more we learn, the better we learn; and the more we know, the more we can create.
So go on. Build yourself a beautiful constellation of interconnected stories, images, and facts.
Be your own Google.
And here are links to articles I mentioned.  On reading comprehension:

While the Light Lasts

Dementia is a degenerative disease. It does not improve. One does not recover. The best we can hope for is to slow the current, as what was your life–your character, your habits, and your memories–slips over the falls at the end.  But this is not a post about water. It’s a post about light.

In the summer of 2007, my dad was admitted to the hospital for internal bleeding caused by the deadly combination of diabetes and alcoholism. When they tried to treat his alcoholism, they found he couldn’t remember the next day what the counselor had discussed with him previously. Rehab was deemed unnecessary on the grounds that his dementia made it fruitless. It was the first we knew of the advanced state of his dementia. Mom had not wanted people to know, and she had not realized how serious it was. Old men get forgetful, now, don’t they? He had about a two-hour memory window, but couldn’t remember what had happened before—a flashlight with a two-hour battery.
I started researching dementia. For him and for me.
Two years later, that window had narrowed considerably. When I moved him in to an assisted living facility closer to me, I took him some books. I asked him if he wanted to read. No, it’s too tiring. I read aloud “Casey at the Bat” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” They are long poems, but poems we both knew well—poems he had read to me many times over the years.  I thought he had five minutes in him, at least. He did not. He did not have a whole sentence in him. By the end of the sentence, he couldn’t remember what the beginning had said. He was confused, disheartened, frustrated, and tired. His mind was a matchlight that burned out almost immediately. I started wondering how long his light would last.
This is a question we’d considered in my youth while talking about photography. Photography is all about light—capturing light, manipulating light, diffusing light, redirecting light. When we went camping, we took pictures, and some of the best were taken in the ‘tweener times—the dawn and dusk hours where light was softer and often broken by shadows. This was a time when the color of flowers looked rich, not bleached, washed out by the midday sun. It was also the time of wildlife.
Deer are most active during these hours, more mobile, on the lookout for food and water they dare not seek during the bright light. The shadows keep them safer. The shadows also give them a texture, a depth, and the pictures taken during those hours convey a coziness and intimacy that is not attainable in full sun or in the darkness that follows dusk. It’s important, then, to shoot precisely during that window—after the sun has set but before the darkness obscures your vision completely. We shoot not frantically, but with purpose, and with intent to make the most of a fleeting opportunity, to take the best pictures we can in the best circumstances. Had I known this would become so comforting a metaphor for life, I would have paid more attention during those moments.
Sitting in his room in his retirement community, reading Robert Service aloud, I longed for epigrams instead of ballads. I sang him songs. Short songs, never the second verse. I wanted to give him cozy, comfortable memories, but distilled. I learned to speak in images: I bought a new car; the granddaughter lost a tooth; the roses are blooming. I brought in books of buildings and bridges, so we could look at them together (he was an architect). We looked at one picture, pointed out a favorite feature, and then put the book away. When words and images are illuminated in flashes, lasting only a moment, you learn to winnow the world down to beautiful seconds. If your whole life is one moment, with no connective tissue to others, you want to make each moment beautiful.
This is why dementia patients need caregivers (apart from the obvious, practical reasons).  If someone is there, pointing out lovely things, life is lovely. If not, the odds that they’ll think of a lovely thing are long; they’re more likely to start and then become confused, as the darkness gathers in their mind. Those of us without dementia benefit from perspective; we see things in a panorama or a film, with scenes succeeding scenes. Our current scenes have a past, a trajectory we can see, and a future we can sometimes predict. And all this cycling through days and nights and dawns and dusks serves us best when it reminds us to take the best shots we can while the light lasts.