Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wordcraft -- Reading and the art of memory

When I started hanging around with writers, they asked, what are you reading? It’s a truism of writers that they can’t write without having read. But the question tongue-tied me. I read, but what had I read?

At the FenCon workshop in Dallas last fall, Pyr editor Lou Anders insisted that members read widely in their genre. And at Austin’s ArmadilloCon a couple of years earlier, guest writer Scott Lynch attributed the “overnight success” of his fantasy The Lies of Locke Lamora, to an intense program of study he undertook through reading in his genre.

When I began writing the “Adventure classics” posts that appear on Fridays in this blog, I expected to get by with books I’d already read. It proved impossible to write intelligently about a book read years, even decades earlier, so I re-read. And found, to my surprise, that the books often differed markedly from my remembrance of them.

Lynch of Locke Lamora fame claimed to have increased his reading from about thirty books a year to more than a hundred. But if my faulty memory is any indication, how can more reading help? Won’t we just forget even more?

In his Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, journalist Joshua Foer quotes sixteenth century essayist Michel de Montaigne on the problem of reading and retention.

“I leaf through books, I do not study them,” Montaigne wrote. “What I retain of them is . . . only the material from which my judgment has profited, and the thoughts and ideas with which it has become imbued. . . .”

Montaigne tried to remedy his memory dilemma by writing summaries in the back of his books.

I wrote lists. But since reading Foer’s book, I’m thinking of building a memory palace instead. It’s an idea also touched on in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, her Man Booker Prize-winning novel about Henry VIII’s adviser, the uber-organized Thomas Cromwell. (Although in the end Cromwell misplaced his head.)

Based on a first-century Latin textbook entitled Rhetorica ad Herennium, a memory palace is simply a visualized space to place memories in. Or rather, to place images -- the more bizarre the better -- that call to mind what a person actually wants to remember.

To show you how it’s done, Foer records the imagery he used to memorize a card sequence at a U.S. Memory competition. “Dom DeLuise, celebrity fat man (and five of clubs), has been implicated in the following unseemly acts in my mind’s eye: He has hocked a fat globule of spittle (nine of clubs) on Albert Einstein’s thick white mane (three of diamonds) and delivered a devastating karate kick (five of spades) to the groin of Pope Benedict XVI (six of diamonds.)”

Foer got a U.S. Memory Championship and a book out of his techniques. I’m already having fun. Maybe I can throw away my list of books. Or maybe not.

(For more about Joshua Foer and Moonwalking with Einstein, see Or if you want to test your memory against the champions, see


  1. Oh, geez! What do we do if we can't remember what the links go with?

    1. Interesting question. According to Foer, memory contest competitors do "spring cleanings" on their memory palaces to remove old links. What struck for us, as writers, is the depth and vividness of the images -- akin to the way we develop characters.