Monday, October 27, 2008

Stop Forgetting

This book fell into my lap at the Wellington Downtown Community Ministry book last year. It's a book about memory, one of the first complete modern memory systems in fact. Think Mega Memory, but without the insufferable infomercials and the tapes. It is the work of a Dr. Bruno Furst, although it is quite possible that he was a doctor of law, rather than medicine or psychology - what little information one can find about him is rather sketchy on that point. We know that he used to lecture law in Czechoslovakia before the second world war and that he is credited as founder and director School of the Memory and Concentration, an international organisation devoted to the improvement of memory "with some twenty branches in the U.S.A., Great Britain and many other English-speaking countries" as of 1949, the date of publication of the book. At least one of these branches still operates at a place called Bowden Hall College, in the United Kingdom, and retains the publishing rights of Furst's courses.

A forerunner of the self-help books that infest our shops, Stop Forgetting is nonetheless in many respects a fascinating and sympathetic book. I might be inclined to quibble with the title - and I will - but I find nothing wrong whatsoever with the overarching goal, which is to help readers improve their capacity to remember stuff. To this end Furst develops a system that leverages the mind's ability to associate and categorise. Part of this system involves translating numbers into words - for instance 91 into the word bat, 92 into bean and 93 into beam - then associates these word-number pairs with pictures, and makes the keyword table thus created the springboard for memorising more complex words and sentences: anything that can be expressed through language, in fact. One of the most interesting aspects of the book are the testimonials of people from several walks of life - the musician, the theological student, the film critic - applying the system in order to memorise information specific to their particular field. And then there are the passages that would make a more contemporary reader smile, such as when we are invited to study and remember a series of magazine ads (aren't we supposed to forget those?), or some fantastic photographic galleries of post-war faces; but those too are part of the colour and the appeal: it is a book of its time, meant to be of practical use, and again I find its broad objectives entirely laudable.

As to whether or not the system works, I have little doubt that it does. It is well thought out and designed, not afraid to incorporate favourite aspects of previous systems and besides, the history of culture is punctuated with similar attempts to improve memory and most of them work because in the end it might just be the (systematic) thought that counts: making a conscious effort to associate and categorise, deploying an ingenious array of mental tricks, running through lists, populating palaces of memory in one's head. It all focuses the mind, it all helps.

But... why do we do it? And I mean especially why nowadays, when so many technologies and gadgets vie for the privilege of helping us to remember stuff, freeing up the mind from the clutter of names and addresses and lists of Academy Award-winning directors so that it can finally attend to some higher level thinking? I think the answer is reasonably complex, but in marketing the book Furst seems to have anticipated in 1949 the reasons that the purveyors of memory books and courses invariably go through today, most often by putting them in the mouth of exasperated punters wishing that they could put names to faces, remember their appointments, study more effectively. In other words, the aspirations of the prospective reader are always perceived to be as follows, and pretty much always in this order: to function better in social situations, to be better at one's work, and to improve oneself beyond memory alone, through memory. The infomercials and the testimonials will bear me out.

Whether this tells the whole story, I'm not so sure. Without aiming to over-analyse a book cover that urges us to stop forgetting a mere four years after the most destructive and genocidal conflict in the history of humanity, the will to protect and improve one's memory has to be seated a little deeper than the wish to avoid social embarrassment ("Frank, so good to see you, have you met... thingy?") or to be more efficient at work. Memory is, quite simply, the glue that holds the self together. Lose that, you lose yourself, as those of us who have had the misfortune of seeing a loved one fall prey to Alzheimer's disease know all too well. Which explains I think why holding on to one's own memory is seen by most as crucial to one's identity. What matters is not just what is remembered - much of which could be externalised in any number of forms and media - but also, and in fact primarily, that you yourself remember it. It is your life story, it is who you are: not a sum of photos and recorded conversations and written documents, but a narrative infused with personal meaning.

The technologist retorts: we can remember it for you wholesale. But the supplement is no substitute, as I hope to show next week when I turn to the film Memento. It is Plato's lesson some twenty-four centuries later, and a struggle that is replayed incessantly in literature and the arts, reflecting a defining trope of our times - that we are in caught in a love/hate relationship with technology - as well as a pervasive unease concerning the ever-increasing mediation and remediation of our lives.

Which leads me to the afore-hinted at quibble with Furst's title. The injunction to Stop Forgetting is at the very crest of our zeitgeist, a defining aspect of the information age and of Internet culture especially, and one deserving of some serious critique. As I suggested a few posts back, working towards an ecology of memory involves reclaiming the very economy of expression that digital technology has made obsolete, and rescuing forgetting from the rhetoric of those who regard loss of information as the ultimate sin of our age. But perhaps Furst anticipated this, and in the opening of the book he abandons the attention-grabbing imperative mood of the cover in favour of a softer, gentler declarative: You Can Remember. In the space between those two phrases lies the work that I hope to accomplish with this blog.

Bruno Furst. Stop Forgetting: How to Develop Your Memory and Put it to Practical Use. New York: Greenberg, 1949. Reprinted in the UK by Psychology Publishing Ltd., 1963.