Memorization gives honor to the past, both with our time, which is required for memorization, and with our attention, our willingness to make the past part of ourselves. It seeks the voices of truth, goodness, or beauty, whenever they first lived, and listens. At the risk of sounding trite, memorization is the imaginative, conservative discipline par excellence.
A few months ago, we welcomed our fourth child into the world. Children are an absolute joy, but—to put it mildly—do not strengthen one’s financial position. I recently found myself scanning job boards and career advice pages, working myself into anxiety over how to increase our family’s income, when a quote from Jesus came to mind: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)
I almost laughed out loud at the fitness of the question. And then I listened to it, pulling away from my anxious scrolling to pray through my fears and think more deeply about my family and our foundational values.
This inner exchange was possible because at some time I no longer remember I made the effort to memorize that pointed question. I did that not to pass a test or to sound erudite later, but because it was powerful and true, in the way questions can be true. It deserved to be seeded in my memory. In that inner conversation, it bore some fruit. Similarly, this line from Hopkins—“Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”—comes to mind many mornings, when I drive to work under a striking sunrise, multiplying the beauty of nature with contemplation of God.
Rather than grousing about how memorization has fallen out of favor in today’s world, I simply want to commend the discipline, especially to readers of this publication. Because, at the risk of sounding trite, memorization is the imaginative, conservative discipline par excellence.
Memorization is imaginative. While it’s certainly possible to stuff something into the subconscious and mumble it mechanically, true memorization kneads it like yeast into the dough of our minds, “digesting” it in the sense of integrating it into our souls. Jamie Kreiner, an associate professor at the University of Georgia, has a fascinating essay about medieval strategies for deep memorization:
A more advanced method for concentrating was to build elaborate mental structures in the course of reading and thinking. Nuns, monks, preachers and the people they educated were always encouraged to visualise the material they were processing. A branchy tree or a finely feathered angel – or in the case of Hugh of St Victor (who wrote a vivid little guide to this strategy in the 12th century), a multilevel ark in the heart of the cosmos – could become the template for dividing complex material into an ordered system. . . .
The point wasn’t to paint these pictures on parchment. It was to give the mind something to draw, to indulge its appetite for aesthetically interesting forms while sorting its ideas into some logical structure. I teach medieval cognitive techniques to college freshmen, and this last one is by far their favourite. Constructing complex mental apparatuses gives them a way to organise – and, in the process, analyse – material they need to learn for other classes. The process also keeps their minds occupied with something that feels palpable and riveting. Concentration and critical thinking, in this mode, feel less like a slog and more like a game.
Effective memorization fills the canvas of the mind—or the “palace” of the memory, for contemporary Sherlock Holmes fans—with what we have memorized. It employs the sensory powers of the imagination to integrate the content into our memories.
Memorization not only uses the imagination, it feeds the imagination as well. Tolkien described creations like Lord of the Rings arising from “the leaf-mould of the mind: . . . of all that has been seen or thought or read,” even if it is consciously forgotten. Memorizing a line of poetry brings it to life in our mind; once alive, it becomes part of us, a mystical union that, as Eva Brann wrote, “makes the past have being and the present vitality.” As anyone who’s had a line from a poem, a Bible verse, or a snatch of song leap to mind can attest, a well-memorized piece of information shapes our thinking, sometimes in surprising ways. An object becomes a subject that converses with us, enriching our inner life.
Memorization is also a conservative discipline. Imagination has been twisted by some to mean either unbridled fantasy-generation, a mere stupor of sensate imagery, or a gnostic campaign to subjugate reality to whim. Imagination dissociated from reality results in madness. Memorization, however, feeds the imagination on what is. It’s almost a tautology, but we can only memorize that which already exists. It’s necessarily grounded in the real present or the real past.
Memorization gives honor to the past. Especially in today’s world, which pressures us toward staring glassily at an endless “feed” of evanescent content, memorization replaces the endless present with some aspect of the past. It honors the past both with our time, which is required for memorization; and with our attention, our willingness to make the past part of ourselves. It is listening to a voice that is not our own.
Memorization is also conservative in that it brings the past into conversation with the present. To return to what happened to me in my financial-anxiety episode: even if you don’t believe that the New Testament Scriptures are living in a way other texts are not, isn’t a question so elemental and wisely put still worth wrestling with? Two thousand years of distance disappear, and I sit with Jesus to reflect on value and a life well lived. Memorization can bring me into conversation with the austere Marcus Aurelius, the coy Emily Dickinson, or the rambunctious G.K. Chesterton, to see the world as they saw it and learn from them.
This suggests another reason memorization is conservative: the memorizer assumes some truths transcend time, and gives those the honor of memory. To venerate mere age is as foolish as to venerate mere newness: the Epicureans of ancient Rome were still wrong in their materialism, and William McGonagall is still a terrible poet. Memorization seeks the voices of truth, goodness, or beauty, whenever they first lived, and listens.
If this is at all persuasive, the response is simple: find words that express truth, wisdom, or beauty, and memorize them. The memory is more like a muscle that becomes stronger with exercise than a closet with limited capacity, so we can be generous rather than miserly with our memories. Find whatever medieval or modern techniques best help you memorize and get to it.
Like most pleasures, memorization is multiplied by sharing with others. Whether it’s as formal as rehearsing Scripture together or as frivolous as hobbits singing a bath-song, shared memorization strengthens our ties to others and enriches us together. A shared memory makes for a deeper shared culture.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 Jamie Kleiner, “How to reduce digital distractions: advice from medieval monks,” aeon, April 24, 2019.
 William Mcgonagall, “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” Poetry Foundation.
 “J.R.R. Tolkien recites The Bath Song,” YouTube video, 0:46, July 27, 2011.
The featured image is “Prophet Joel” by Michelangelo di Ludovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.