Mr. Foer provides a brief history of memorization and the declining role it plays in modern culture, where books, photographs, museums and digital media have promoted “the externalization of memory” and changed the very notion of erudition and what it means to be an educated person.

Before writing was common, human beings had to use their own brains for information storage, and before books were indexed — making it possible to gain access to them in a nonlinear way — people labored under the “imperative to hold” books’ contents in their own mental hard drives simply to find particular bits of information. Poets in the oral tradition, like Homer, relied on repetition and rhythms and other patterns to recite their work from memory, and in the ancient world, exceptional memories were both exalted and widely known.

“King Cyrus could give the names of all the soldiers in his army,” Mr. Foer writes, citing Pliny the Elder’s report in “Natural History,” a first-century encyclopedia. “Lucius Scipio knew the names of the whole Roman people.”

Mr. Foer adds: “There are plenty of reasons not to take everything Pliny says at face value (he also reported the existence of a race of dog-headed people in India), but the sheer volume of anecdotes about extraordinary memories in the classical world is itself telling.”
- MICHIKO KAKUTANI, Remember How Important It Is Not to Forget, NYT, MARCH 7, 2011

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