The nonsense we remember

Dear M,

I've written off David McCullough's John Adams for years now because I said it was written for children.  I made this bad judgment years ago based on the opening passages, in which Mr. McCullough described, in detailed terms, the weather of John Adams' morning.  I had no time, at that point in my life, to hear about the air quality on February X seventeen seventy-something, or about how the snow crunched, or about the kind of road he traveled on, or how the light looked.  The book came across as unserious and possibly a waste of time, so I shelved it, and eventually boxed it, and it's been sitting under my bed until now.

I bring this up because I retained this vivid picture of John Adams' morning despite the fact that I've forgotten whole chapters about Julius Caesar -- a fact that distresses me lots.  I'm climbing up to two-hundred books read at this point and most of them I've forgotten.  Too many things down the tubes.  Things I wanted to remember and forgot.  But John Adams' morning sticks with me as vividly as the screen I'm staring into now, and this frustration led me to write this essay.

It turns out I'm not alone, and that what people remember isn't numbers and dates and quotes but the things that spur their imagination, however trivial they seem.  I remember dreams so vividly that I can take a vacation, at any moment I choose, and get lost on streets from nowhere except my own mind, carouse with women I've seen only when asleep, and fly past cities in the clouds or on the mountains.  I remember meeting Julie Andrews on the cross-beams of a rooftop when I was six, and an entire conversation with a dream Jordan B Peterson.  The books I've studied for the purpose of remembering?   Much of them as lost to me as to someone who's never read them.

I've lamented this a long time, but this fact of human nature was written about most plainly in Unlimited Memory, a book by Kevin Horsley.  Kevin had brain damage and the brain damage gave him bad dyslexia; and because of this his mom had to read his syllabi to him all throughout high school; and furthermore, by the time he graduated he couldn't read any better than he could in 1st grade.  He was amazed he even graduated at all.

But Kevin started reading all kinds of books about the brain, eventually beat his own dyslexia, and not only got to where he'd read four books in a week, but to the point where he could master things in an hour that it took intelligent people months to only remember.  He went on to memorize the first 10,000 numbers of Pi, beat what he calls "the Mount Everest of memory competitions*," and not only beat it, but beat the last winner by 14 whole minutes.  From "you have brain damage" to (this is a real title) "International Grandmaster of Memory."

His entire theory?  Feel the things you want to remember.  Tie them into real objects you can smell and taste and see.  When you imagine things like a dream you retain them possibly for life.  This of course is the short way of explaining it, but that's what he says, and I proved it by remembering John Adams' morning, the most random of my dreams, and a whole slew of minutiae I never cared to revisit.  To write physical details into the story isn't the act of an entertainer -- it's the act of a great teacher.  It's what someone does when they believe their story is so important they don't want you to ever forget it.  It's why Jesus' parables stuck with us and Nietzsche's maxims didn't, and why children learn from what they see their parents do, and not from what they hear us say.

Nearly everything I remember from my books came the moment I crossed from this world to the next.  The moment things come alive, and you imagine yourself there and the way things look and sound and smell and the people in motion, is the moment you're really learning.  I insulted Mr McCullough and said his book was for children.  But Christ said we had to become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven, and this is nowhere more true than in the case of a scholar.  We have to dream like children to remember anything we read.  But instead we drill numbers and factoids into our heads for multiple choice answers -- and teach children to forget that dreaming, with the things that we learn, is the whole point***.

Your father,

PS: I really do believe that these essays, hidden on this page for you and a few others to read, contain many of the most important truths a man could read about.  Nonetheless, these essays will be forgotten except by a few adoring subscribers.  But the man or woman who takes them and puts them into a great work of fiction, or history -- who makes them come alive in colors and faces and noises and feelings?  He approaches the realm of the gods and the prophets.  He knows philosophy is about life -- and that making it come alive is the best way to teach anyone philosophy.

*This contest, almost incredible when put into plain light, involves dividing the first 10,000 numbers of Pi into 5-number segments, having said segments called out at random, and having to state the segments that came before and then after them.  If a bad writer and extreme dyslexic like Kevin Horsley can pump all this out and we can't remember anything as interesting as Plutarch's Life of Cicero or Shakespeare's Henry IV then we have nobody to blame but ourselves.  He wanted something more than we did -- and now he has it and we don't.

**The fact that our dreams survive and our bald facts don't is, I believe, the reason why a pre-lettered society had so many shamans and so little pop-quizzes.  They remembered the dreams of their fathers because the fathers made dreams come alive to their children.  Their myths all lived on and their histories, full of boring facts that nobody troubled to make lively, simply died along with what they ate for dinner last February.  There was simply no color to it, so the aborigines lived within fables.  Heritage as such is a dream.  The society that tells the best stories about themselves will always have the best grandchildren.

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  1. Thank you, Jeremy, for your brilliant essays. I just wish you could pump one out every day! You provide much food for thought.

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