1 The Art of Memory , by Frances A. Yates (1966). This book launched the whole field of academic research into the art of memory. Starting with the ancient Greeks, Yates tells the story of how the art of memory began. She also writes about a mental device for memory retrieval called a “memory palace” — an imagined edifice in your mind’s eye that you use to structure and store information. The idea is to take a building that you are intimately familiar with and deposit imagery in that building that is so vivid that you can’t forget it. If you can engage the visual part of your brain in remembering, it makes stuff stickier. Mnemonists say their skills are as much about creativity as memory.
2 The Book of Memory , by Mary Carruthers (1990). This is the best study of the role that memory plays in medieval culture. During the Middle Ages, they understood that words accompanied by imagery are much more memorable. By making the margins of a book colorful and beautiful, illuminations help make the text unforgettable. It’s unfortunate that we’ve lost the art of illumination. The fact that books today are mostly a string of words makes it easier to forget the text. What with the impact of the iPad, the future of the book is up for reimagination, and I wonder whether we’ll rediscover the importance of making texts richer visually.
3 Memory in Oral Traditions , by David C. Rubin (1995). This is such a good book. Rubin applies learning from cognitive science to help us understand oral traditions — stories passed down by word of mouth. And he writes about how the ancients understood things about cognition that have been rediscovered only recently. For instance, that rhyme and rhythm are mnemonic as well as euphonic. One of the best ways to make something memorable is by using rhyme and meter and rhythm and song. That seems to be how “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” were transmitted.
4 Metaphors of Memory , by Douwe Draaisma (2000). This is a book that should be more widely known. It’s a history of how we’ve talked about memory over time. Today we talk about photographic memory or digital memory; we analogize our memories to the technologies of our era. That’s always been true. The Greeks talked of memory as though it were a wax tablet. In the middle of the last century, thinkers saw memory as a hologram. To Socrates, memory was an aviary. For Freud, it was a mystic writing pad. Draaisma writes about how these metaphors shape what we think about memory.
5 The Mind of a Mnemonist , by A.R. Luria (1968). This book created the entire genre of humanistic clinical histories. Without Luria, a Russian neuropsychologist, there could be no Oliver Sacks, the British neurologist who wrote “Awakening.” For 30 years, Luria studied a journalist called Solomon Shereshevsky or simply “S.” Supposedly, S had a vacuum-cleaner memory. In fact, he seemed to remember too well. He was ineffectual as a journalist and ultimately couldn’t make a living as anything other than a stage performer — a memory freak. I think that points to something profound: Forgetting is an important part of learning; it teaches us to abstract. Because S remembered too much, he couldn’t process what he witnessed and couldn’t make his way in the world.
From an interview with Joshua Foer conducted by Eve Gerber for the Browser, a British literary website. Read the whole interview at TheBrowser.com/fivebooks.