The lost art of memorization
Remember when we knew how to remember?
I have a pretty terrible memory. I constantly forget where I left my phone, and I couldn't tell you what I ate for breakfast the day before yesterday. When friends bring up something we did together in 2017, I'll frequently blurt with surprise, "wait, we did?" But if you asked me to recite the opening lines of E.B. White's short story "Once More to the Lake," I could do it without blinking. By some strange alchemy, that passage, which I read obsessively before one high school English exam, remains branded in my mind a whole decade later.
But hold your applause. While this feat amazes me, it would have been normal — expected, even — for many people in almost every culture throughout human history. Even as recently as half a century ago, schoolchildren as young as 8 would be expected to memorize as many as 40 lines of poetry. But today, the recitation of literature is something so unexpected that it can dazzle a room and provoke rosy recollections of relatives who knew "Kubla Khan" by heart. For all the value we still place on literary recitations, it would seem that they have almost melted away.
Before every smidgen of knowledge was a mere Google search away, it was customary for students to memorize great works, from poems to famous political speeches to religious passages. In antiquity, "there were elaborate mnemotechnic ways of memorizing speeches," explained Katharina Volk, the director of undergraduate Classics studies at Columbia University, citing the method of Ioci and Ars Memorativa. It was also customary to memorize far more prosaic works: In the U.S. and U.K. in the 19th century, "memorization was the default learning technique across the whole curriculum," said Catherine Robson, the author of Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem. "To learn your lesson was to learn the passage in the textbook about the geography of Iowa. When it was your turn to be examined by the teacher, in the U.S. system you would go up to the recitation bench and you would recite that paragraph."
Even some older generations might still remember being forced to commit text to memory in school. It is a less common practice now, especially in the U.S.: I had a teacher who — cruelly, it had seemed at the time — made my class memorize the short Preamble to the Constitution, requiring us to repeat the test over and over until we got it exactly right. As City Journal explains, "For progressive educators, to require students to recite 'Daffodils' or memorize the Gettysburg Address is a relic of a 'drill and kill' culture that inhibits the development of the self and is the educational equivalent of a chain gang." Many academics now agree that forced rote memorization is a useless learning technique — that something memorized does not mean it is necessarily absorbed or understood.
Nowadays, the memorization of prose indeed seems a relic of another era, a skill for a literal Renaissance man. Still, any creative writing professor will tell you that literature is written with sound at the forefront of the mind: the gallop of alliteration, the clap of onomatopoeias, the patient tick of polysyndetons. For all its burdening of the page, literature is very frequently an oral art, one that deserves to be ushered into sound as much as a sheet of music might.
"Punctuation plays an important role in that," said Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the UC Berkeley School of Information. "The internal rhythms that signal by semicolons and em-dashes, and so on and so forth, give a structure to the the rhythm of a line that ends on a beat." And while audiobooks may provide modern readers a clumsy substitute for this, with an impersonal, disembodied voice reading a page, prose recitations are electrifying both in their performance and their intimacy. "People are held spellbound by a good recitation," Robson said. "It alters the chemistry of the room in a really fascinating way."
Several recent works have highlighted this. In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' incredible short film "Meal Ticket," Harry Melling plays a man with no arms and legs who is taken from town to town giving mesmerizing recitations of some of the world's greatest literary works (fittingly, perhaps, he loses his gig to a chicken that does arithmetic). In The Wife, Jonathan Pryce plays a professor who uses his memorization of the last lines of James Joyce's "The Dead" as something of a parlor trick, dazzling admirers who might or might not recognize the passage. Most impressive of all is the performance of Gatz this week in New York City, in which a cast reads and recites word-for-word the entirety of The Great Gatsby over the course of approximately eight hours. The show is headed by actor Scott Shepherd, who has all 49,000 words of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel memorized — the show climaxes with him performing the ninth chapter without the crutch of the book at all.
But Robson cautions against romanticizing a time when people had their heads full of memorized text. "I can't stand all these oh, it was a better world when we do this because anything that does that forgets to look at all the awful things about that world. In this particular zone, it wasn't fun for a lot of kids." Recalling the humiliation of messing up the Preamble in front of my peers, I'd have to agree. The key, Robson explains, is having a choice in the matter; even Volk, the Classics professor at Columbia, said that while memorizing classical literature was a part of her education, as it is for many who still study Greek or Latin, "I also do it for fun."
In fact, literary memorization is not yet a relic. It still exists all around us; we just tend to classify it differently. "Rap culture," Robson corrected me as one example when I proposed that recitation was fading from everyday life. "Whenever we say people speaking aloud or rhythmic language isn't a part of our world — of course it is." She added, "Any one of us, if you poke us, huge swaths of song lyrics will come out — we don't necessarily need to sing them." Nunberg agreed: "You think of even the number of [Bob] Dylan lyrics that people [know], which is poetic in its way," he said. "Even my daughter — I mean I grew up with this, but she knows it too ... Poetry itself is no longer common intellectual property the way it was in the nineteenth century. Dylan is."
Nunberg pointed me toward a book, John Hollander's Committed to Memory, which proposes the 100 best poems to memorize, as a place to start for anyone nostalgic for when heads were fuller of poetry than of popular music. "The fact of learning the poem, it lives in a different way," he said. For when something is memorized, we have ownership over it — it is somehow imprinted in us, as core to us as our own memories.
His words made me turn over a part of myself I hadn't considered before, that brand of E.B. White burned on some synapse in my hippocampus. That in addition to my green eyes and brown hair, the freckle on my pointer finger and my memories of Christmases in California, I am those words, too: One summer, along about 1904, my father rented a camp on a lake in Maine and took us all there for the month of August ...