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In Defense of the Memory Theater

What concerns me about the literary apocalypse that everybody now expects—the at least partial elimination of paper books in favor of digital alternatives—is not chiefly the books themselves, but the bookshelf. My fear is for the eclectic, personal collections that we bookish people assemble over the course of our lives, as well as for their grander, public step-siblings. I fear for our memory theaters.

There was a time when I thought I could do without much of one. As a student in college and graduate school, moving from room to room virtually every year, the desire to keep my possessions down to what could be stuffed into a Toyota Corolla overwhelmed the reptilian instinct to collect. That in itself became a pleasurable asceticism, and it suited my budget. As so often accompanies renunciation, I came to love the forbidden objects—the books—more and more. I learned to bind and sew my own, to cut the pages, and to print, illustrate, and letterpress them. Exactly because space was so limited, I could spend an entire Sunday afternoon at a certain used bookstore agonizing over several possible purchases, of which I would allow myself only one.

Mainly, during that time, my bookshelf was a rotating amalgam of whatever my heart desired from the library—and these were really good university libraries, with miles of shelves and easy access to interlibrary loan. On a whim, I could flit to the cavernous stacks and pick up an answer to whatever curiosity crossed my mind. Along the way to finding it, I’d end up grabbing a few more books that attracted me. Those ugly buildings—they were always ugly—became more than homes away from home. Walking into one, I’d feel as if entering an annex of my own nervous system.

But eventually, inevitably, I moved on from the plenty of universities to a string of tiny New York apartments. My little library came with me. In the months that followed, after a countdown of email warnings, my off-campus access to the University of California’s online databases went dead. By then I had already learned that, as sprawling as the New York library systems were, they couldn’t satisfy me like the academic ones had before. Getting there took not just a stop on the way to class, but a subway ride and a trudge through the cold. Most of what I wanted, anyhow, was in the closed stacks at 42nd Street, and I couldn’t take anything there home with me past the watchful guard of the lions out front.

It was, finally, just me and my bookshelf. At first it wasn’t even a shelf at all, but piles of books scattered around my room on the floor, as orderly as I could manage and as high as they’d get before tumbling. The collection I had was a good one—largely unfashionable theologies, seductive philosophies, and my prized bestsellers from the 1970s about ancient alien gods and futures unrealized—but so much was missing. I was in New York to write and to think, and I would find myself turning to those stacks in desperation for a connection, a memory, or the loosest association. What suddenly became most evident were the absences, the missing books I could hazily remember having read and digested, yet which would need referring to again. They had turned, terrifyingly, into phantom limbs.

Having at last found a stable place to live, one with wooden shelves already mounted on the walls, I shed the old asceticism and began the process of reassembly. Review copies that come in the mail have helped, and I balance out their novelty with trips to the dustier corners of bookshops and antique stores. But just as I’ve begun holding on to books, the technology of paper and print drifts into obsolescence, with only unfulfilled techno-corporate promises to replace them. The point here isn’t to be steampunk; I’ll take my library in any form, so long as it will never abandon me again. Something very basic is at stake.

Ever since the habit of writing first took hold of me as a teenager, I knew precisely why I did it, and why I did it so compulsively: to hedge against the terror of having a terrible memory. Though still young enough to expect no sympathy, I constantly feel the burden of this handicap. Confirmation of it, and that writing is its cure, I discover every time I pick up something I wrote years, or even months ago. Reading those things puts me in an uncanny state, like a past-life regression. Meanwhile, unrecorded impressions, sayings, old friends, and good books vanish without warning or trace. Some read and write to win eternal life; I would be happy enough just to keep a hold of this one.

One of the books that I used to habitually pick up from my college library, and which, recently, I finally bought used, is Frances Yates’s classic The Art of Memory. First published in 1966, it chronicles lost mnemonic techniques, passed down from the ancient orators to the Renaissance humanists: spaces people would conjure in their minds to help them remember all the precious accoutrements of civilized knowledge.

Yates takes us back to the Greeks, who held memory to be the plumbing of one’s soul, a vital tether between the sensory world and the eternal forms. They knew that Mnemosyne, memory’s personification, was by Zeus the mother of all the muses. The Greeks and then the Romans created imaginary edifices by which they could carry entire speeches, taxonomies, and epics in their heads. By the medieval period, this tradition was expressed in Dante’s circles of Hell and Aquinas’s placement of memory within the cardinal virtue of prudence—thereby elevating it to a moral responsibility. As Renaissance polymaths drew from classical and esoteric sources, they designed and even physically built more elaborate theaters of memory. In place of an audience, the 16th-century memory theater of Giulio Camillo presented to its stage an array of images, symbols, and archetypes that amounted to a microcosm of the cosmos. Standing before it, a person could loose the binds of forgetfulness and access the mind’s resources unrestrained. “Whoever is admitted as a spectator,” reported Erasmus, having heard about the theater from a correspondent of his, “will be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero.” Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Yates controversially argued, was designed in this way to help the actors remember their lines. Francis Bacon reportedly had a private memory theater in his home, with painted glass depicting “severall figures of beast, bird and flower.” In those millennia between the advent of knowledge worth clinging to and the invention of the printed word, the Western mind had a desperate obsession with memory—or, one could say, a sensible concern. The art of memory made possible the health of one’s soul, the possession of one’s culture, and the means of reaching God.

In the age of inexpensive, printed books, our memory theaters have become both richer and more banal; we have entrusted them to our bookshelves rather than to tricks of mental contortion or cosmic schemata. As I look over my own shelf, I see my life pass before my eyes. The memories grafted onto each volume become stirred and awakened by a glance at the spine, which presents itself to be touched, opened, and explored. Without the bookshelf’s landscape to turn to, that manifest remainder from a lifetime of reading, how would one think? What would one write?

Modern life, if we can still call it that, occurs as a sequence of gleeful apocalypses. One world constantly gives way to another. If it doesn’t, “consumers”—as people now call themselves—get anxious. We’re familiar with the drill: new audio/video formats arrive every decade; a new “generation” of cell phone every couple years; and, on a rolling basis, there’s the expectation that several totally unexpected paradigm shifts are in the works—the internet, global climate change, a new fundamental particle, and that sort of thing.

The decline of actual, physical book-publishing has been taking longer than it was supposed to. Way back in 1992 Robert Coover announced in The New York Times that printed books were as “dead as God.” His doomsday was premature. But the digital offerings of Amazon and Google, along with their ever-better delivery devices, promise that finally the end may be nigh. Crotchety complaints about screen-reading aside, it should be obvious to anyone who cares about information that in many respects digital text is a superior technology to the printed page. On Google Books, I just searched “the printed page” (without the quotation marks) across “some seven million volumes of books,” instantly returning results in 76,000 of them. And that is not mere statistical flourish; for the several years since I lost my borrowing privileges from research libraries and have had to leave my source texts behind, I’ve come to rely on Google and Amazon searchable previews. My old dream of a possessionless library, unencumbered and mobile, seems possible again. The very meaning of the word “book” has become something more powerful, dynamic, and accessible than ever before.

Every good reactionary knows well that there arises, in the process of using these wonders, the opportunity for laziness. Days, weeks, and years of archival labor are replaced by a keystroke and, with it, much of the discipline, erudition, and tenacity that the old ways required. But there’s no time to be nostalgic and grumpy. Living well with technology has always been a matter of beating it and abusing it. No one cared much about the electric guitar until somebody turned it up too loud. Now our job is to figure out how to be cleverer than the search engine; when certain ways of finding information become easy, the knowledge really worth having becomes what those methods don’t turn up, what the crawlers somehow managed to miss. As the Temple of Knowledge comes to look ever more like the Googleplex, public libraries are downsizing their reference desks, presuming that for every query an internet search will suffice.

Libraries absolutely cannot keel over and let Google replace them. They are our collective bookshelves, the memory theater for a community. As Robert Darnton suggested in the December 17, 2009 New York Review of Books, the U.S. government might do well to acquire Google Books outright. France, after legally blocking Google’s plans to scan its books, is undertaking a digitization initiative of its own. This is, after all, a basically political matter; the bookshelf is a political arrangement. It carries our words, ideas, convictions, memories, identity, and language—the imaginative substance of any political order. Just as a personal bookshelf becomes the extension of one’s body, a democratic society must ensure that its books are held democratically.

One could phrase the basic demands of a hypothetical bookshelf manifesto like this: for-life, liberatedness, and the pursuit of eclecticism. They’re all related. “For-life” means the right to keep one’s books as long as one lives and, just as importantly, to pass them on to one’s descendants. They must not be take-away-able by the fiat of a far-away corporation. They must be in a medium and format that will be readable in a hundred years and, if we know what’s good for us, in five thousand. “Liberatedness” means that the texts are truly ours to do with as we please, short of harming others. We can lend them to enemies and friends. We can mark them up or damage them. We can move them around wherever we like, and wherever the technology allows, freely organizing and categorizing them to all the limits of our private compulsions. Finally, “the pursuit of eclecticism” means that there should be no limit on the breadth of our collections. Plainly, no censorship. These are all things that my shelf of paper and cardboard do quite well and that the most celebrated digital alternatives, so far, do not.

The Amazon Kindle is a catastrophe: an interface to a proprietary market managed by a profit-motivated outfit that wants to own and monetize your memory theater. On July 17, 2009, in an act so bumblingly ironic that even Amazon called its behavior “stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles,” the company removed copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 (!) from customers’ Kindles without warning or permission. The editions, it turned out, were illicit. While the company was sure to apologize and pay a pittance in damages to the affected customers after the ensuing outrage, this incident demonstrated the sort of powers Amazon has reserved for itself in the design of this new, presumably paradigm-changing device. Books (as well as the annotations one makes while reading, which Amazon saves on its servers) are encoded in a proprietary file format, depending utterly on the device and its software in order to be read. No Kindle—and no Amazon to sell you one—no book. The law has yet to determine precisely what it means to access an e-book on a device like the Kindle: is it more like a lease, a subscription, or an outright purchase? These are complicated questions, and rightfully so, since they involve the fortunes of publishers and authors as well as of readers. While lawyers quibble and companies duel, the Orwell debacle showed that Amazon’s technical capabilities far exceed what it, constrained by public relations and legal counsel, has so far taken the liberty of doing. But even those constraints could be transitory ones. The Kindle’s license agreement also states that it can be changed without notice at Amazon’s will.

Apple’s iPad, the overgrown smartphone that has been eating up the Kindle’s market-share in the e-book business, isn’t much better. The slicker Apple’s products get, the more overbearingly they seek to control the user experience. Like the iPhone, the iPad is a closed system that goes out of its way to prevent the kinds of misuse that stops the people who use it from being anything more than customers. It will only load software, and its bookstore will only carry books, that survive Apple’s censors. The iPad does offer publishers the option of selling their books in non-proprietary formats, which means that when you want to switch to a different kind of reader, your books can go with you. This is a basic condition of liberatedness that amazingly has been absent from e-readers until recently, and it remains way too far from being business as usual.

Until these companies take seriously the needs and, above all, the rights of readers (the human beings, not the machines), they deserve ruthless suspicion. Just because the Kindle and iPad might seem to work relatively reliably now, and because Google tells itself “don’t be evil,” we shouldn’t keep from entertaining darker, more paranoid, even Orwellian fantasies. Never before has the technology been so good for totalitarian urges, should they arise. Already, the agreements being hammered out between Google and the publishing industry are likely to allow Google to withhold as much as 15% of its scanned, copyrighted archive from the public. It’s unlikely that anyone will bother (or pay) to scan most of those books again. Whoever controls Google Books already controls the future of public knowledge to a very considerable degree.

Far from its pleasantly chaotic salad days, the internet is now tending toward mass consolidation. Companies are less and less interested in helping us store information ourselves and more and more eager to do it for us. We’re not keeping our email and documents on our computers’ hard drives anymore; Gmail and Google Docs have them on distant servers. Apple wants to follow suit with its subscription-based MobileMe system, pulling more and more of our data into its so-called “cloud.” Facebook has already done so with no less than our friendships.

So far, for all the wonders they offer, the digital alternatives to a bookshelf fail to serve its basic purposes. The space of memory and thinking must not be an essentially controlled, homogenous one. Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad are noxious ruses that must be creatively resisted—not simply because they are electronic but because they propose to commandeer our bookshelves. I will defend the spirit of mine tooth and nail.

If my non-luddite credentials aren’t fully in order, let me say this: The most remarkable memory theater I’ve ever known is on a computer. It is the work of my uncle, once a biologist at the National Institutes of Health, a designer of fish farms, a nonprofit idealist, and a carpenter. Now he has devoted himself full-time to his theater. A “Cartesian theater,” he calls it, subverting the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s epistemological derision; it’s a digital environment he has built to manage his life and, among other projects, to present a never-to-be-finished play called The History of the World.

His theater consists of a series of computer programs written in Turbo Pascal, running on DOS and Windows 98. They revolve around an ingenious text editor, which also functions as a file manager, a viewer, a jukebox, and a programming environment. It is truly, as they used to say, hypertext—text and computer code are one and the same there. Words perform actions. Form is content. A powerful search engine follows you everywhere you go. You feel close enough to the machine to sense its electric pulse behind the two-color display with its blocky, fixed-width characters.

My uncle does most of his reading on that screen. As he reads digital books and articles, he formats them in plain ASCII text, adjusted to fit into his editor and his screen. In the process, every text (or image or sound), whether it be a letter from his daughter describing a dream or Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You, becomes a part of this single, searchable, integrated organism. When he tells me about it, he uses evolutionary metaphors cribbed from his years researching genetics. The creature mutates and adapts. It learns and grows. Guiding its progress is my uncle’s frenetic brilliance and his awareness, like my mnemonic terrors, of running up against the limits of his own mind.

Once, he called himself a “biologian,” merging the subject matter of life with the method of a theologian. More recently, he told me that he is an alchemist.

For years, nobody in our family bothered to learn about the world he had constructed. When I first discovered it, I was in college. I immediately dropped almost everything and, for a year, took all the courses I could in the computer science department. My uncle and I had long conversations about it all, and I began to get a sense for what he was doing. But the more I learned the rights and wrongs of conventional wisdom, the more idiosyncratic his tactics seemed. I never stopped admiring his creation, but I could hardly even figure out how to use it. His theater can only be his own, I thought, and the rest of us are doomed to dependence on Apple, Microsoft, and the clutter of open-source alternatives.

In the last year, though, I’ve been proven wrong. My mother had an enormous book project in front of her, a bookshelf all its own: editing an eight-or-so-volume biography of a South Indian saint. Never having been comfortable with computers, she would call me for long conversations about what software to use and how to go about using it. I hoped to make things simple, so I stuck her with the usual brand-name suspects. I was soon happy to learn that she had ignored my advice entirely. She started calling to tell me how my uncle had set her up to do the work on his system and how much pleasure she got out of every hour she spent applying herself to it. Now, they are expanding the project beyond its original proportions to digitize and catalog a decades-old library of materials about the guru. As they discuss it together, I can see in them the spell that must have driven ancient monks (or, for that matter, the future monks of A Canticle for Leibowitz), in their mutual solitude, to amass the great libraries of their time. This collection, this digital bookshelf, as hand-wrought as any shelf my uncle ever fashioned as a carpenter, was becoming a medium and artifact of their care for one another and an artifact of their love. It was theirs, and their children, I desperately hope, will inherit it.

In my own ways, with less patience than my uncle, I’ve tried to build my own electronic memory theaters. Blogs have been useful, though never, as a rule, exhaustive. I’ve stored thousands of pages of reading notes in text files, searchable and as sure as can be not to become obsolete. With each attempt, I become convinced that the bookshelf of the future is yet to come and that we’re in desperate need of it. Perhaps I am asking for simply the right piece of software. Or, better: a messy, ingenious variety. Even if Google keeps its promise and doesn’t turn evil, and even if the Kindle becomes a noble purveyor of reading material to the people, our best ideas will come from our most inventive memory theaters. The point of all this worrying is to dig a spur in the capacity of human creativity to outsmart the enemies of imagination.

Iam in no position to end with prognostication, to predict how all this business will turn out, or to recommend particular policy directives and consumer rules-of-thumb. The companies will have their way, of course; as the filmmaker Chris Marker once put it, I bow to the economic miracle. But I can end with a vision, and it can point to a posture.

Picture a library, in flames, overlooking the city in ruins below—the Library of Alexandria under Caesar’s assault all over again. Books by the thousands audibly crinkle as they incinerate, disappearing for all time, never to be read again and, in a generation or two, never to be remembered. They are all irreplaceable; their loss is exactly incalculable. They are now good only to fuel the fire. As bystanders, we’re consumed by horror. We imagine ourselves as the books, the books as ourselves. Everything is lost with them. Right?

Or, on the other hand, might we instead laugh and cheer? It wouldn’t be the first time at a book-burning. Why not? Isn’t there also comedy—a divine comedy—in what freedom would follow the immolation of civilization’s material memory? We have only ourselves again, ourselves and our God. Perhaps these flames might go by the name of progress.

I confess to feeling the allure of the burning library. Maybe we all do, a little. A culture so willing to downsize and sell off its libraries must. It gestures toward the shadow side of being so dependent on, and thus protective of, a bookshelf. When it becomes my memory theater, what have I become? What becomes of me without it? A passage comes to mind that I first discovered in Yates’ Art of Memory, from the Phaedrus of Plato. Socrates is repeating the speech of an Egyptian king named Thamus to Theuth, the god who has just invented writing:

[T]his invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are not part of themselves will discourage the use of their memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

As a student, I worried that this passage prophesied exactly what I was being trained to become: a functionary of a culture that had handed itself over to inanimate objects, amassing such vast and detailed knowledge that no person could possibly possess it, much less translate it into the wisdom that should be the basis of any life worth living.

What if, after Google becomes “The Last Library,” a computer virus—or the cataclysmic solar flare that some 2012 enthusiasts like to warn about—finds a way of separating us from our databanks? Or what if my own shelf were lost to fire, forced relocation, or any of the possible calamities of history that might befall it? These thoughts first redouble my zeal for defending our memory theaters against every threat, so surely do they stand as the bulwark against pathos; but that pathos, I must also realize, is partly their invention.

As the business of reading technology continues along its trajectory, whether apocalyptic or utopian or both, perhaps those of us who continue to fancy ourselves concerned readers—however much we give in to the new and shiny—might turn our attention anew to what one might call “inner work.” In the part of ourselves which is not technological, we could rediscover the tautology that what makes knowledge so precious is its precariousness, not the surety of our control over it. We’ll need to cultivate the arts of memory and forgetting alluded to in these lines by William Blake, which came to me in a letter from a friend, a librarian who, for years now, has been slowly dying in a monastery:

He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

Even among these wonders now available to us and still to come, all having remains no less a preparation for loss.

Ready? Because that’s what is at stake.

___
Nathan Schneider, senior editor of Killing the Buddha, an online magazine of religion and culture, is working on a book about the search for proof of the existence of God. He hosts the blog The Row Boat.

31 Comments »

  • j. p. ward says:

    On the demise of the printed book; I have a Dutch cartoon showing two monks copying, quill in hand, sitting at their writing desks. Says one to the other: “I hear they have printed books now”. Says the other: “Just a fad. It will never last”.

    Well, they have lasted for 530 years or so. May they last as long again!

    J. P. Ward

  • Bill Mueller says:

    Good article. Books like souvenirs help provide a way forward…move on. That said objects and memories are emissaries of the past. People do not last; the past was real like the present is. I think people are emotionally tied to souvenirs as if they were in the present and public offerings of objects (e.g. tokens left at the Vietnam Memorial) can be collections of literature in their own right. I agree that books provide seeds to the moment itself and allow people to retell history. I wrote a book on this subject titled ‘The Noble American, Souvenirs of Spain’ that can be found at the Authorhouse bookstore or at Googlebooks (yes, I want my book to be part of this cultural experiment). Cheers.

  • Ramesh Raghuvanshi says:

    Those who argue for ebooks is they understand what joy in printing books?How can you judge Ebook good or bad?When I purchased the printed book I first browse it, see it bibliography, see references, read some paragraphs,than decide purchase or not,can ebook give me this satisfaction?When I bringing book to my home I smell-it new books smell recall my childhood` s first touch to new book. can Ebook give me this joy?. For reading ebook I to connect it Kendal or Pad if this instrument not work or batteries are down out of date Iam helpless.Printed book I can read any time any were on bad in garden in travel in arms chare suppose I want to stop reading I can do it. Hunting old books or out print books joy can ebook give me?I think ebook is fad ,fashion.as herd mentality of American people.Printed book never die.

  • gary daily says:

    In 1933, Nazi’s piled books in a street in Berlin and set them on fire. Near that spot today is a memorial, a plaque and a window at ground level. Look down through the window and you will see a space lined with empty bookshelves.

    Is it time to start building memorials in front of the schools and libraries of the nation similar to the burned books memorial in Berlin? If we did, peering through their plexiglass windows you would see well-stocked shelves of books on the edges of the cave space. But flickering light from highly polished television and computer monitors in the center of the space would reveal that the books on the shelves are covered in dust, unread.

  • Matt says:

    A certain sort of superficial observer thinks that printed books and magazines are analogous to horse drawn carriages in the run-up to the mass-produced automobile. I suppose I can see why, but I think a better comparison would be with the bicycle, which has not been superceded by internal combustion, but has instead enjoyed increased popularity. Like bikes, newspapers and books say something about their customers, provide an enjoyable, tangible experience, and offer an absurd amount of variety and value.

  • Pertinax says:

    I stopped buying books years ago. Paying $30 for paperbacks made of acid-bleached paper and cheap glue that fall apart in less than four years just wasn’t worth it. So have been relying on libraries that a decreasing number of bookshelves, an increasing number of computer terminals and reservation queues.

    Electronic books and some competition in the market means I may start buying books again.

  • David says:

    You lost me at “the government should take over Google books.” Why? The Google search isn’t working? Should the government take over Amazon as well?

    “If it’s good, communize it” is not a good political philosophy. Read some better books.

  • T. says:

    I enjoyed reading your article very much! Could you decribe your uncle’s “cartesian theater” or post the link where to read more about it?

  • Justin says:

    david,

    when something is so important as to be considered a key part of our humanity, it should belong to that humanity and not be held in private hands. govt represents humanity in this case. i personally argree…

  • Rick says:

    Like T., I’d love to know more about the Cartesian Theater project. Please describe what software your Uncle was using. Did he write it himself? Probably not. It sounds like one of the old free-form database programs or similar products that were text editors that stored files in databases.

    Great article.

  • DavidO says:

    I agree with the other David — I had to read the “government should take over Google books” sentence several times to be sure that I read it correctly. This doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the article. I first thought maybe a “not” was mistakenly left out.

    It amazing that the author is worried about what Amazon and Apple will do when they controls the book catalog, but would not be worried at all if the government were charge of the catalog.

    Because, you know, unlike those evil corporations, governments throughout history have never been interested in the controlling the flow of information, right? Surely the government would use its power only for good if it were put in charge of the book catalog…isn’t that what history tells us?

  • tongnyam nyime says:

    Lest we forget Fray Bartolome de las Casas who had burned untold numbers of ancient Mayan books (codices) and that modern scholars have but few remaining texts with which to study the ancient Maya.

  • Michelle says:

    Wonderful. Thank you.

  • Megadittos on Google seizure. (Or is it megaseizures on GoogleDitto?)

    Google Books is not some finite natural resource the government can claim to be preserving, as the argument goes with airwaves and the FCC. Google Books is an asset that Google had to build.

    Say Google built a tower to the sun, brick and rivet and lime. Even at the outer margins of eminent domain abuse, you’re not officially supposed to seize a tower solely on the argument that the tower is now worth a lot of money. If the U.S. government wants the tower so bad it can build its own damn tower.

    There’s nothing stopping the library of congress from building its own scanned library. Or maybe a job this sensitive would have to be handled by the Department of Homeland Security. Either way, the end result would be a shortage of books.

    That having been said, it would suit the goal of building a “political” library. I’m just not sure why that’s the goal. Young men with combovers, sunken-eyed apparatchiks, maleducated Georgetown ninnies, think-tank washouts: These are the players you want in your memory theater?

  • James Valcore says:

    I read Fahrenheit 451 my freshman year in high school

  • Rick and T, thanks for your interest in my uncle’s software. Rick, yes, he has created most of it from scratch; the system is entirely of his design. Unfortunately, he hasn’t made much of anything about it public; at present, this essay is the fullest description available.

  • batpox says:

    A thoughtful and wonderful article. Thanks.

    I have a large library that I carry everywhere with me. I have hundreds of books that are available within seconds and it only weighs 10 oz. The complete works of William Shakespeare, among others (at 99 cents each). I can read it anywhere, including on the beach, and I have to plug it in only every few week. Yes, is the Kindle.

    You rail against Amazon without looking at the product. They simply provide a product; they don’t write or edit the books; they just sell them at a price cheaper than the paper. And it allows people to self-publish, which is a nice alternative to the dictations of the large publishing houses.

    They were large enough to get the large suppliers to reduce their prices, much like Walmart getting great pharmacy pricing.

    So, although paper books are sometimes nice, the electronic version – when done correctly – provides the same joy of reading with a few perks thrown in.

  • Jeff says:

    Excellent letter, thank you for sharing. I have a few thoughts in response.

    I share your fear of the damage electronic media may do to the printed book, and through that, man’s way of remembering and understanding life. But I don’t see the threat coming from e-books. These strike me as relatively benign trifles, and if anything, help people to amass much larger book collections (many of us are still in the pre-settled-down phase you described, where cash and space for books are extremely limited!).

    My real concern is with the power of the Internet to supplant our need for memory, or our need to craft stories to understand the world. Only a few years ago, a question in a group of people like “Do you know of any place good to eat around here?” would have required several people to sift through their memories and try to recall the best places to eat. If no one knew, calls could be placed or friendly strangers asked. Now, though, 3 people will race to whip out their smartphones and consult Yelp. In a million other areas of knowledge, there is now next to no reward for remembering well; the information can just be accessed more reliably on the Internet in any case.

    Further, the Internet trains us to focus on single topics only in short bursts, while constantly on the prowl for new articles and “content” to consumer. At the end of every blog post, and even before it, there are a dozen other enticing subjects to read about it. The end of a book is a blank last page, leaving the reader alone to think over and engage with what he just read.

    I trust that the book will be around for a long time to come, and it is really every individual’s choice whether he or she chooses to keep reading them.

  • Michael says:

    Excellent piece, reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library.”

  • Jake says:

    Nathan: the software you might be looking for is Devonthink Pro; Steven Berlin Johnson describes how he uses it here. That’s basically how I use it too. Let me know how it goes. I wrote about it a little bit here.

    One other pointer: If you love books and libraries this much, try Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s books The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, which are basically love letters to literature and life. They’re very fun, despite being overwrought at times.

  • JazzWine says:

    Wonderful. thoughtful article. Thank-you.

    I am responding to “Jeff”‘s comment of “..the internet trains us to focus on single topics only in short bursts, … The end of a book is a blank last page…leaving the reader alone to think over and engage with what he just read.” I agree that Jeff’s observation/fear can indeed be realized if one skips about from one brief read to another – without stopping to think about what was just read. I suggest, however, if one is aware of the potential risk of memory loss from this practise , one need only practice self discipline: upon finishing the short read, take some time to mull it over before going onto another read as we are inclined to do upon finishing a book.

  • Anne Armentrout says:

    You write, “Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Yates controversially argued, was designed in this way to help the actors remember their lines.”

    Can you give me the source that I might read this argument more fully? I am a student of Shakespeare and performance and am particularly interested in what the artifacts and architecture of the time can tell us about what actually went on in the playhouses.

    Thank you.

  • Liz says:

    Superb article that struck many chords!

    Reading about Amazon’s repossession of its customers’ Orwell books, reminds me of some Microsoft software packages which are programmed to limit the number of times you can load them onto your computer. After all, are we just paying for limited time access to software and electronic media?

    I’m beginning to get a bit tired of hearing technophiles waxing lyrical about their Kindles and how many thousands of e-books they have. How many books can you read on the train to work in the morning?

    Isn’t it somewhat dangerous to have all your eggs in one basket? Computer files can be accidentally deleted. Computers crash. Amazon might decree tomorrow that you are not mature enough to carry on reading “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and repossess it. Electronic data is not tangible – in essence, it doesn’t really exist. You may have your files stored on a usb stick or CD but without a functioning computer and a stable electricity supply, these storage media are junk. Paper books, however damaged over time, remain readable. How often in your lifetime have you lost paper books due to, say, fire or flooding?

    I am not advocating an ‘either-or’ situation: we should adopt the new technology but also maintain the old. Both systems have something to offer.

  • You make a very thought provoking point. I appreciate how you articulated this.

  • J says:

    I can pick up a book that was printed 250 years ago and read it. 250 years from now, our descendents will not be able to pick up a Kindle or an iPad or even a USB stick and read the contents.

  • Paul Wilson says:

    … an ingenious text editor, which also functions as a file manager, a viewer, a jukebox, and a programming environment. It is truly, as they used to say, hypertext — text and computer code are one and the same there. Words perform actions. Form is content. A powerful search engine follows you everywhere you go.

    Sounds like Emacs (with a few readily available extensions for video and audio) and especially former MIT researcher Barry Rhodes’ amazing extension Remembrance Agent. Made for writers, it subtly prompts a writer, with discrete links to stored text or hypertext in user-selected directories, to relevant matches when matches are found within 100 words of your cursor. Quite mature (the fruit of an MIT PhD thesis); works best on Linux.

    More good open source, context aware projects from MIT’s Haystack Group

    Mark Pilgrim took Barry Rhodes’ browser-based Margin Notes project (see papers at Remembrance Agent site) to Firefox with a Greasemonkey Hack (#100, “Remember Everything You Read” — Magic Line), in the book of that name. Certainly, the browser is where these context-aware reminders need to live for most of us, and Firefox, being the most hackable browser, is the experimental vehicle of choice for MIT’s Haystack Group.

    Also of interest, esp. to those not up to mastering Emacs, and willing to experiment with proprietary software and cloud-based control of your own history, is the “Annotated References and Resources” chapter in Gordon Bell’s and Jim Gemmell’s Total Recall (Dutton, 2009). The blog has some links.

    A book I bought and read at the same time, as a counterweight to Total Recall’s blatant technoptimism, was Viktor Mayer-Schonberger’s award-winning Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton UP, 2009). Highly recommended, esp. as many of the most popular and ubiquitous remembrance agents on offer and coming our way are very likely to be applications hosted in the cloud and thus beyond our ultimate control.

    Judicious use of Firefox’s privacy settings with some of these open source tools should allow one to maintain some semblance of control.

    User beware!

    Ray, thanks for the article. Your uncle might be interested in porting his ancient Turbo Pascal MS-DOS code to the Borland Turbo Pascal 7.0 compatible open source Free Pascal, to allow it to work on Mac and Linux — and modern versions of Windows. He might also be interested in Lazarus, Free Pascal’s open source version of Borland’s IDE for Windows, Delphi, to allow development of a full GUI and cross-platform compilation of his Turbo Pascal code on PC, Mac, Linux, and more. Such porting could also enable him to make his application Web-aware. In any case, it would be a shame to see such a labor of love die of bit rot for lack of maintainability and a user/developer community. Free Pascal to the rescue! I would be interested in hearing from him, if he has any such hopes for his software’s longevity or usefulness to others.

  • Paul Wilson says:

    Nathan, sorry, called you Ray. Great article — Was led here by publisher Tim O’Reilly’s tweet.

  • BrianSJ says:

    A new version of the memory theatre would be very welcome. YOu should be able to find the wonderful work by Robert Edgar using early Apple machines. He pointed out that we don’t have a closed cosmology any more, which poses a design challenge.

    On the subject of bookshelves, http://is.gd/knxwt is a book that is much better than its title might suggest; the Book on the Bookshelf by Petrosky.

  • baidu says:

    Although swahili is my first language I was delighted reading it.

  • Claire says:

    Sigh.. this piece makes me fall in love with the author..

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