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The Gift of Illiteracy

Yes, you read that correctly. And bear with me; I’m getting to Simon in this post, but not right away.

So, for some time now I’ve lived with the dread fear that age and motherhood were eating my brain. My recall for names and words was not what it had once been, and I was finding it increasingly hard to focus on and absorb longer pieces of writing. My daily reading included magazine articles, shorter NY Times pieces, email, and political blogs. And Gawker, but I’m not proud of that. And really, at least one of the political blogs was a glorified tabloid.

Then I got laid off. In the two months hence, I can feel my brain returning to me. I still don’t have all the recall I used to, and I assume some of that ability truly is lost to middle-age. But the rest? Back. I’ve read a novel about an Irish country doctor. I’ve read Tracy Kidder’s recent book about a Rwandan refugee. I’m re-reading a travelogue about Greenland. I have simultaneously begun an Edith Wharton novel.

I learned the Yiddish alphabet and how to calculate and read Hebrew dates to decipher family headstones. I’ve researched the original form and meaning of the eight primary surnames in my ancestry. I’ve dipped into academic essays and poetry while watching Simon play with trains. I’ve tried (and failed) to write a sonnet for the heck of it. You get the idea. Basically, I take care of the house in the morning, take care of Simon from noon on (now it’s all day since school is out), and then from nine to midnight I feed my starving, neglected brain.

My first assumption about this shift was that my brain was benefitting from a huge reduction in stress. Freed from the constant stress of plugging away at a dying list, I could channel my energy into something productive.

But I think there may well be more to it. Of late I’ve been reading about the effects of the Internet on long-term memory. The short version of this is that we are quite literally Googling ourselves stupid. The ability to look up anything at any time has not only given us ADD when it comes to longer forms of writing, but also has severely curtailed our ability to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory. What’s the point when you can just look it up again once you forget?

What this reminds me of now that I can think straight is the shift in memory that occurs when societies become literate. Go back to Homer’s era, and story-tellers could recite epics that went on for days. Meanwhile, I worked for hours in high school to memorize the first 18 lines of The Canterbury Tales (I can still recite them, too). Its’ pretty simple: If a people cannot write down foundational tales, it must commit them to memory, and once people can refer to the written text, they lose the motivation or interest in memorization. There are a few exceptions, like devout Muslims who memorize the entire Quran, but generally speaking, literacy is the beginning of memory atrophy.

Meanwhile, I am living with a little person who is interested in stories and loves rhymes, but who cannot read or write. Simon’s approach to literature is fascinating to observe. He will ask me to read him the same book for two weeks straight. It gets so repetitive that I can hardly take it before he’s ready to move on. But at the end of any binge, he’s able to recite the book from start to finish. For the last six months to a year, he’s been working on memorizing the entire text of his favorites: Bear Wants More, Bear Snores On, Kitten’s First Full Moon, Goodnight Moon, various Dr. Seuss titles, Old Hat, New Hat etc. Some he can recite only if the book is open before him. Others he can recite while the book sits closed on the shelf.

He, like most kids his age, is hard at work flexing the memory muscle, and I’m inspired by it. So inspired that I’ve given up most of my blogs and largely abandoned Facebook. I can’t—nor do I want to—go back to being illiterate. But with just a little discipline, I can dedicate more of my time to the type of reading that makes me smarter, not dumber.

For more on the effects of the Internet on memory, see Nicholas Carr at:


One Response to “The Gift of Illiteracy”

  1. blg says:

    Funny – I twittered about the Nicholas Carr article only yesterday.

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