Clark’s recent post on Death and the Atonement got me thinking about the fascinating preface to Lewis Carroll’s book Sylvie and Bruno. Clark’s subsequent post to his own blog related marginaly to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and how the characters in the book memorized whole books to preserve them from destruction reminded me of a different part of Carroll’s preface.
In the preface to Sylvie and Bruno, Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, wrote about two books that he would like to create but that he was afraid that he would never get around to. He described them with the hope that they would be taken up by someone else. First he proposed
…a book of pieces selected from the Bible–not single texts, but passages of from 10 to 20 verses each–to be committed to memory.
Second, he proposed
…a collection of passages, both prose and verse, from books other than the Bible. There is not perhaps much, in what is called ‘un-inspired’ literature (a misnomer, I hold: if Shakespeare was not inspired, one may well doubt if any man ever was), that will bear the process of being pondered over, a hundred times: still there are such passages–enough, I think, to make a goodly store for the memory.
In our modern culture, the ease of reproducing words either in print or as an audio and video recording has facilitated the abandonment of the art of memorization. I look back on the times in my education that I was required to memorize a poem or a passage of prose and they were few and far between. I find it pleasantly surprising, however, that I can still recall at will good portions, if not the entirety, of most of the the passages I was required to memorize: The Ride of Paul Revere, the Gettysburg Address, the Preface to the Constitution, the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, dozens of lines from Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale in Middle English. Most of these things I was required to memorize in the 5th grade and I have made no extraordinary effort to retain them. After the 5th grade, I was not encouraged to memorize anything until I studied Chaucer at BYU. I find a curious joy in the recitation of memorized passages.
Outside of my secular education I was required to memorize the articles of faith for primary, specific scriptures for the Scripture Mastery program in seminary, and the missionary discussions. I can still recite a number of the articles of faith word for word,though not all, but while I can recall a few verses more or less word for word, I find that my memorization of the seminary scriptures was not nearly as successful as my other experiences with memorization. I can still quote from memory several portions of the missionary discussions in Spanish.
Lewis Carroll makes the following observation of his proposed books:
I have said ‘passages,’ rather than single texts, because we have no means of recalling single texts: memory needs links, and here are none: one may have a hundred texts stored in the memory, and not be able to recall, at will, more than half-a-dozen–and those by mere chance: whereas, once get hold of any portion of a chapter that has been committed to memory, and the whole can be recovered: all hangs together.
It is interesting to note that all of the things that I am able to recall without as much effort consist of lengthy passages, but that the memorized scriptures that I struggle with are all single verses. My own experience seems to support Carroll’s observations about memorization.
Carroll provides two benefits of memorizing long passages of scripture and inspirational secular texts. First,
Such passages would be found useful, to repeat to one’s self and to ponder over, on many occasions when reading is difficult, if not impossible: for instance, when lying awake at night–on a railway-journey–when taking a solitary walk-in old age, when eye-sight is failing of wholly lost–and, best of all, when illness, while incapacitating us for reading or any other occupation, condemns us to lie awake through many weary silent hours: at such a time how keenly one may realise the truth of David’s rapturous cry ‘O how sweet are thy words unto my throat: yea, sweeter than honey unto my mouth!’
Different people dispute to what extent, if any, Terri Schiavo was aware and able to think. No one really knows how much her memory was lost by the damage to her brain. But regardless there are other people who have found themselves in a state where they are both aware and thinking while their brain has been damaged to the point where they cannot move or communicate. If I were to ever find myself in such a situation, I suspect that having memorized passages of scripture and literature would be a blessing beyond measure. And as Lewis Carroll points out, there are many other moments in life where the ability to recall such passages and ponder about them would be invaluable.
Carroll explains that the second reason for memorizing passages of inspiration is protective:
These two books of sacred, and secular, passages for memory–will serve other good purposes besides merely occupying vacant hours: they will help to keep at bay many anxious thoughts, worrying thoughts, uncharitable thoughts, unholy thoughts. Let me say this, in better words than my own, by copying a passage from that most interesting book, Robertson’s Lectures on the Epistles to the Corinthians, Lecture XLIX.
“If a man finds himself haunted by evil desires and unholy images, which will generally be at periodical hours, let him commit to memory passages of Scripture, or passages from the best writers in verse or prose. Let him store his mind with these, as safeguards to repeat when he lies awake in some restless night, or when despairing imaginations, or gloomy, suicidal thoughts, beset him. Let these be to him the sword, turning everywhere to keep the way of the Garden of Life from the intrusion of profaner footsteps.”
We have been commanded to let virtue garnish our thoughts unceasingly. There is a good deal of power in virtuous words. What better way to garnish our thoughts than with memorized passages from the best of books. This is not unlike president Packer’s admonition to memorize hymns as a defense against wicked thoughts and temptations.
Memorizing single verses or couplets compartmentalizes their meanings. By memorizing lengthy passages we benefit from context and relationship. If Carroll is right, by memorizing length passages rather than decontextualized sound bites we should also benefit from the ability to recall the information more readily.
Perhaps we could all benefit from a program involving the memorization of longer passages of scripture and literature. In D&C 84, the Lord has commanded us to “Treasure up in [our] minds continually the words of life.” In the church we have often associated this scripture with simple, regular scripture study, but the image of “treasuring up” words in the mind seems to me to suggest memorization.
What are your thoughts on this subject? What passages of scripture or literature would be good candidates for LDS versions of the two books Carroll suggested?