Battle of the Memory Palace

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?

—Nathan Schneider, from his ruminative essay “In Defense of the Memory Theater” at Open Letters Monthly. In writing of the “memory theater,” Schneider refers to the traditions cultivated by scholars of Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance of imaginal techniques for remembering vast stores of information. “Masters of memory” typically imagined elaborate palazzi and cathedrals of their own design, populating their imaginary niches and stairways with icons representing the stories and formulae they strove to keep in memory.

I call the material of the masters of memory of old “information” and not “knowledge” by choice; proofs, laws, or esoteric formulae, these were data, or tools by which to control data. Schneider’s memory palace, in the form of the collection of books he has carried from one domicile to another over the course of his life, is by contast a container for “knowledge”—precisely, self-knowledge, with which the mnemotechnicians of old were but fitfully concerned.

Secondly, the memory palaces were imagined spaces, hardcoded in wetware to survive the fall of actual buildings. Schneider’s memory palace, by contrast, is vanishingly real. Aware of its tenuousness, he wonders if the arts of memory aren’t due for a renascence:

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.

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