When I was thirty-five I was reading the Canterbury Tales and decided to memorize one of them. I chose The Miller’s Tale because it is funny and bawdy. It’s also pretty long, almost 700 lines of Middle English, though it’s not the longest one. That curse goes to The Parson’s tale, which is well over 3,000 lines.
At the time I was living in Japan and didn’t have anyone to ride with on weekdays, so I would clip out a dozen lines or so, paste them to my stem, and memorize as I rode. I don’t remember how long it took to memorize the whole thing, but it was several months.
In order to memorize a new couplet I’d start at the beginning and work my way to the new lines, which meant that the earlier lines were pounded in much deeper than the later ones. It became a kind of obsession, as I’d be lounging around the kotatsu after work mumbling Middle English and occasionally whipping out a snippet of paper, staring at it, and then starting over with, “Whilom ther was dwellynge at Oxenford … “
My family thought I was crazy and no one ever asked me what I was doing.
Then one day we took a car trip with some friends to Kamakura and I told them that I would recite a poem if they wanted to hear it. No one really spoke English, and they figured I meant a few lines of something that I’d learned and wanted to show off. They were partly right.
I realized after beginning that this was going to take forever. Seven hundred lines and about five thousand words doesn’t end any time soon. It must have been maddening to listen to me drone on and on. I finished and no one said anything. They probably thought I had been randomly talking gibberish, and the thing was never brought up again. Having memorized The Miller’s Tale, I promptly forgot about it.
Computers and memory
It’s been my experience that computers, and especially social media, have a deleterious effect on my memory. There is ample research that shows, for example, how reliance on smartphone GPS permanently degrades the brain’s innate wayfinding capability. For myself, regularly using #socmed made it incredibly hard to concentrate on anything. This sucked, because prior to my #socmed career I had pretty solid powers of concentration. Memorizing The Miller’s Tale is an example.
A couple of years ago I got off the #socmed crazy train and went back to doing what I have always done: Reading books and focusing on things one at a time. It didn’t take long before my concentration returned, minus the degradation that comes from being a few years older. Combining that with the rote memorization required for learning Chinese, I started to think that there really is something valid to this criticism of social media, i.e. that it completely degrades our ability to focus and concentrate.
Chaucer and Wheatgrass
I was riding with a friend last weekend and we were chatting about Chaucer. “I used to know The Miller’s Tale by heart,” I said.
Friend gave me a deeply skeptical look. “Oh, really?”
“Sure,” I said. “I even still remember a little bit of it.”
“Let’s hear it,” she said.
I spit out the first two lines and ground to a halt. “Something like that …” I mumbled with embarrassment. It wasn’t mentioned again.
But this really aggravated me. I had learned it, every single word. And although I’d forgotten it, it didn’t really feel “forgotten.” It was more like being buried at the bottom of a deep hole.
So yesterday, before going to the airport, I printed out the first fifty lines of The Miller’s Tale off the Internet and tried to memorize them. It was so amazing as the words popped back into my head. By the time I got to LAX I was able to perfectly recite the entirety of the first fifty lines, and with little to no effort. I compared that to the brutal drudgery it had been pounding the words into my head almost twenty years ago. It really was as if the words were still in my brain, they just needed a bit of concentration to dig them back up. How many other things are buried in our minds, things that we’ve simply overlain with the mindless minutiae of the endless, second-by-second #fakenews cycle?
Then I thought about the true feats of human memory, for example the Odyssey and the Iliad, which were simply recited in their entirety by the ancient poets and performers. Equally astounding was the ability of native Americans to memorize the entire topography of thousands of square miles, navigating without use of stars or directions, but rather simply by remembering where everything was.
Fifty lines of Chaucer seems pretty much a joke in comparison. But the next time you see me out riding, don’t be surprised if I’m mumbling at something taped to my stem.