Monday, June 21, 2010

The Shallows, A Time of Gifts, and the importance of memorization

I just sent a review of Nicholas Carr's new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, to Christian Century magazine, so I won't review it here. I will say, however, that the book is well researched and thought provoking, and Carr is an engaging writer to boot. If you're thinking you might want to buy or borrow it, you can get a preview by reading his Atlantic article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (July/August 2008).

But I'd like to comment here on his ninth chapter, "Search, Memory," which includes some startling ideas that aren't in the magazine article. Carr strongly disagrees with those who see no point in memorization, now that nearly anything we might memorize is available in the Internet's vast data banks. Without well-formed memories, he believes, we become unable to synthesize our cultural heritage and reinterpret it for our day. We can't draw on it to inform our own creative endeavors. And we certainly can't pass it on to future generations. "Outsource memory," says Carr, "and culture withers."

While reading The Shallows for work, I was also reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts for fun. In 1933 at the age of 18, Leigh Fermor set off on a solo walking tour from Holland to Constantinople. This book, the first of two about his journey, gets him as far as Hungary. With no MP3 player to distract him, he amuses himself en route by singing and reciting poetry: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Coleridge, Blake, Scott, Swinburne, Rossetti, Wordsworth, Kipling, Donne, Herrick, Raleigh, Wyatt, Herbert, Marvell, Housman, Chaucer, Carroll, and Lear--to name only some of the authors he mentions.

Leigh Fermor, I should point out, left school at age 16.

If I made that journey, I wouldn't know enough poetry to get me from breakfast to lunch on the first day out. Back in the 1950s when I was in elementary school, memorization had largely fallen from grace. My father had memorized long poems in the 1920s, but by age 16 all I could recite was William Cullen Bryant's "Thanatopsis" (learned for extra credit to prove to my father than I could do it too), a couple of poems by Robert Frost, the first two and a half verses of "Paul Revere's Ride," and "Gerald McBoing-Boing Meets Mr. Magoo," a poem published in Family Circle that my mother suggested I memorize when I was driving her nuts on a long car trip (I was an 8-year-old chatterbox, and I had run out of library books).

This is a shame because, in Leigh Fermor's words, "I was at the age when one's memory for poetry or for languages - indeed for anything - takes impressions like wax and, up to a point, lasts like marble." Fortunately I attended a Christian school that, though it had given up on poetry and languages, still expected us to memorize scripture. Lots of it, from the King James Version. I whined and grumbled, but my mother wisely told me to just do it. "When you're older," she told me, "these verses will stay in your mind. You'll be glad they're there."

Mother was right, and so, I believe, is Nicholas Carr. As I learned in grade school and still remember, "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh" (Matthew 12:34).


Check out William Dalrymple's 2008 interview with Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor here.

4 comments:

Karen DuBert said...

This plea for memorization is absolutely true. I sigh over my own sketchy "school" memorization--which I understand surpassed the American public schools at the time. When I try to memorize a chapter from the Bible now, it is only with grit and determination that I don't lose it within months.

Jason said...

Having attended a Missouri Synod Lutheran grade school in the 1980s, I can vouch for the power of so-called 'memory work.' We memorized hundreds of Bible verses (KJV, naturally), along with significant portions of Luther's Small Catechism. At Christmas time, we would memorize hymns and carols (both in English and in German) and sing for aged or disabled church members who were unable to attend regular services. If I am ever blessed with children, I can say with confidence that they will get plenty of opportunities to strengthen their power of memory -- with or without the help of their school teachers.

Anonymous said...

I hope you eventually post your review of "The Shallows" as I am reading it right now and would love to hear your thoughts.

As a young person, I, too, was encouraged to memorize large passages (including entire books!) of the Bible. Back during the Cold War when I was in youth group, we played a game. The teens would sit in a circle in a dark room and recite as much scripture as we could remember. The objective was to get us to memorize before a communist regime took away our Bibles.

I'm not qualified to assess that particular threat; however, there are plenty of other good reasons to memorize poems and scripture.

One curious observation: while I read/study from the NIV and the NAS, I can only memorize from the KJV. Maybe there is something to those neural circuits formed early in life.

LaVonne Neff said...

CC doesn't like me to post my reviews before they do, so it may be a couple of months. However, there are lots of good reviews online you can check out. The one thing I did that may be different is draw out some religious implications.

I agree - the KJV is made for memorizing. A lot like Shakespeare, in fact. Why memorize something that sounds just like our uninspired daily speech?