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My Palace of Memory Crumbles

A version of this piece was originally broadcast by NPR on the 26 December 2006 edition of NPR's All Things Considered. It can be heard on their web site via RealAudio or Windows Media Player.

I've got wild dogs running through my palace of memory, and I don't know what to do about them. What happened was, I was reading a book called the Art of Memory about the way that ancients scholars were able to store vast amounts of knowledge by imagining complex architectural spaces and filling those imaginary spaces with symbols—so if you were going to give a speech on pride you'd put a lion in the foyer, or if it was about meekness you might put in a lamb. When you gave the speech, you'd go on a walk through your mental palace. No notes required.

I thought, well now this is fun. I'll make my own palace of memory. It will be somewhere interesting to go during meetings. So every night for a week I'd go to bed and before I fell asleep I'd fill in the details on my palace of memory. I live in New York City, so it was great to have so much room to decorate. Mental real estate is amazingly cheap. I started with the room off the foyer. It should be modern, lots of nice space-age furniture. Like a bachelor pad merged with the Guggenheim museum.

I painted the foyer light green and put in some windows, and dropped a thirty-foot-tall frog in one room. That's the biology room. I put sculptures of great authors in another room so that I could walk through them in chronological order and think deeply about literature. Maybe I'd wear a robe.

I beavered away inside my head for a week and then I thought, this is all trivia. I could look all of this up online in ten seconds. I don't have time to walk from room to room. Where's the search box?

So this huge amazing palace of memory? It was real estate boondoggle in my brain. And it's not like you can sell one of these. It just sits there unused until you can forget it. But you can't forget it because designed to keep you from forgetting in the first place. I'd occasionally walk through, just to check on the property, and notice that the bust of Mark Twain had fallen over onto Thomas Hardy and both of them were on the ground and Hardy was missing his nose. The thirty-foot frog was starting to stink and somehow dogs had gotten in and were running wild. I don't know who you call about loose wild dogs in your brain. So I shut the great silver door and put a bar over it with a lock. Before long the palace was a ruin.

I guess memory used to be the product of craft, a skill like being a blacksmith or a barrel-maker, but now it's mass-produced. I used to think I had a good memory but it's probably not the kind that builds a palace; maybe it's more the kind of memory that wanders through the ruins and picks up old coins.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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