Memory by Harriet Harvey Wood

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Memory by Harriet Harvey Wood

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Category: Anthologies
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: All you could ever want to know and read about memory, from ancient philosophy through medieval literature to modern science thinking. So much of it, in fact, you cannot remember any of it, and wonder what the book was ever designed to do.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 352 Date: January 2008
Publisher: Chatto and Windus
ISBN: 978-0701177379

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So, what is your earliest memory? I don't know, but as second best I can recall the first time I lay in bed and tried to work that out. Was it a time of sitting in the pram and being taken to buy a replacement foot support strap for it, as I was apparently in the habit of breaking them? Was it me sitting in the afternoon sun, eating salad, and being photographed? The picture's existence might be evidence my mind just imagined my point of view of the experience, and created my current sense of it for me. The other two options I remember considering, I have since forgotten.

Before I sound too self-indulgent, I should point out that Antonia Byatt does something very similar in her introduction to this book, and who wouldn't, given the opportunity? Besides, there is nothing like reading about memory for bringing your own to the fore, whether the writing is as in the first section of this book - current scientific thoughts on the matter from eminent thinkers, or as in the larger section that follows of extracts.

Memory is a very personal thing, both those ones we have and our individual ability of recall. Such things helped scupper the second essay, as my memories of Beethoven's music, and art, do not coincide with the author's. It only goes to show that learning is a great part of memory - it's not only what we live but what we are taught that we should try and keep in our heads (although 'learning by heart' just goes to show a dodgy idea of anatomy).

Steven Rose's essay is much more to my mindset, where he details some biological work he and others have done, to witness memory in action in the brain. It turns out for memory to operate requires a whole bodyful of chemicals, and of course we are all just a mush of molecules in specific formations in the first place. So how, then, when all that is recycled quite often, might we still keep in mind things from ninety years ago?

From what we can gather from the essays, and the shorter extracts in the second part, which co-editor Harriet Harvey Wood introduces, there has been a road travelled by the thinker on memory, from having it as if the details we remember are stored as if on wax cylinders, for replay and reuse sometime in the future, to more modern modes of compilation - the computer of our modern times. Now we know more of what the most minute parts of the brain are doing - but then here's Freud and his friends, working out what the mind is doing in using or in some cases blocking what those parts have left us remembering. I'll come back to that consensus, if I remember to.

The erudite editors have not concentrated on science by any stretch of the imagination. Instead there is also a wealth of literary classics used for extracts - ranging from one line to ten pages - that show how memory has been a concern for many people in the past. We witness Virginia Woolf thinking about her childhood memories - and then, as she must, about memory full stop. We also get the most well-known writing on memory, which Woolf either adored or never managed to finish - that of Proust.

It's just that through dozens of segments, we only get a very hazy picture of how everyone has thought memory is worth writing about. I might have been intrigued to turn to a couple of the works and read on, but not many - I didn't make notes as I went through. All I'm left with is a few firm thoughts - Proust is piffle, Voltaire can be fun, and the best literature here is Terry Pratchett taking the Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen and giving their reminiscences to mayflies.

If then memory is so important to our sense of self, and a great part of the soul that makes humans human, why are there no books on improving your memory as popular as those making us thin? Well, it would appear from this selection that apart from ancient ideas about memorising lists by using a familiar roadmap to locate them on, memory cannot be taught, only as part of a greater mental improvement, if at all - as William James says, no amount of culture would seem capable of modifying a man's general retentiveness.

So instead of a how-to we have this anthology, standing as a history, a memorandum to modern thinking, and a philosophical look at why. Which brings me to the major problem with the volume. There are so many extracts in the second block, that while all talking about the same thing - and in chronological order, updating the previous entries - they just don't know when to stop talking. They never seem to disagree, never contradict, and thankfully, due to a good editorial process, never exactly repeat each other. But they should be able to say what they say in a much shorter way.

It's obvious from the book the editors are incredibly learned when it comes to memory. But their own creative input is down to a few words of introduction. They should have taken the bull by the horns, and written a guide through all their selections, which need not have been a word longer. It could easily come to the same lack of conclusion as this volume does.

It seems that, however convincing the book is about just how eternally important memory is (and how annoying forgetting and forgetfulness are), this approach scuppers any chance of creating a book from which we can learn. I can imagine people with a much greater scientific or literary knowledge than mine revelling in the other half of this book to their normal interests, but for the general reader this gives such an abundance of riches, none of which stick in the mind, that you are only left to conclude that no subject matter, however wide-ranging, should ever be given a book in this format.

I did learn things, I did note some enjoyment from the fiction selections, but an entire swathe of my life has gone by without forming any great memories, due to my reading this awkward volume. It was one I picked up thinking yes, this is a matter I could and should be more interested in, and looked forward to a world of immersion in it. Having nearly drowned, I cannot recommend the book, even to the very curious. While my personal rating would probably be below three stars, I can see some use of this book for specialists after a specific approach, but to anyone else this is a case of 'buyer beware'.

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