I am currently reading (audible recording actually) Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer.


This morning on my walk I was ‘reading’ Chapter 7 (or there abouts) in Part II of the tape. It addressed the history of writing in the context of the book’s subject, which is actually the art and history of memory. It seems that Socrates was against the written word. (I don’t have a print version of the book but I did find a source/blog with virtually the same amazing information.)


Seems ‘The Soc’ thought something like this: writing would lead society down a treacherous path to moral decay and laziness…… although (a reader’s) knowledge might increase, they themselves might become empty vessels.
He viewed the written word as only groups of symbols that were to remind people of what they already know- and spoke words (paraphrase) that say: You (the teacher) transfer no true wisdom to disciples – by telling them many things without teaching them anything. You will make them seem to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And as men filled not with wisdom, but conceit for wisdom, they will become a burden to their fellow men. (I think that is a great description of a PhD person.. just personal opinion of course.)


Other facts from the book (that I recall somewhat semi-accurately):
5th century BC: scrolls were up to 60 feet long and had no punctuation or spaces in the words. The first spaces between words developed around 200 AD, and not until 900 years later did books have punctuation and spaces between words as a standard of the day.


And those books had no index at all! So if you wanted to find something you had to read the whole thing. A printed bible was about ten pounds and it was not until the13th century that the bible was all bound in one book, prior- it was many books. In those days, locations with as many as 100 books were considered to be rare and large collections.


And when one did read a book, you committed as much to memory as you could since you would probably never see the book again. The first bookshelves with titled spines appeared in 15th century (and they may become obsolete in our lifetime.) When books were produced in flat pages and bound — this was considered a ‘Google-like’ leap in book technology; for the first time – one didn’t have to unroll scrolls to find the words—this was a huge leap in information retrieval in its day.


Now some ‘non-book’ thoughts quickly:


We humans are notoriously bad at predicting the future: The city planners of NY City around 1880 stated that the city could never grow to more than a million in population because there would be no place to stable that many horses.


Here are some other predictions by people that you may recall: ( from my 2008 book Send Your Brain to the Gym):


Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances. – Dr. Lee DeForest, Inventor of TV


The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosive. -Admiral William Leahy, U.S. Atomic Bomb Project


There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom. -Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1923


Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons. – Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949


I think there is a world market for maybe five computers. – Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943




I suppose Socrates never considered a reader that might read a few words or paragraphs (ooops!…I forgot; they didn’t have paragraphs.) and stop to ponder their meaning – and that those words could convey new ideas and emotions – concepts ‘above’ the printed word. It was very short-sighted of the old boy but entirely forgivable – as there weren’t any books for him to read. I’ve heard that one issue of the Sunday NY Times contains more info than say, Ben Franklin, every came across in a lifetime.. and he founded the country’s library system. I could not help but wonder how much information/data an educated person in the day of Socrates with no books, would hear. As Foer points out – in those days memory was everything. One of the first things new students were taught was memory technique/systems (Foer describes many of those techniques and their use and evolution.)


I‘d rather be selling my own book but I have to say Josha Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein is fantastic – Lots of stories of the eccentricities of people who are national/international memory champions. He shows why good memory is more a matter of discipline and hard work, than of genetics/IQ; he will make you a believer on that.


If this note had been written in 500 BC it would be all caps, no spaces, and no punctuation… so if I made errors here, you should hardly notice!


-by author Don Singletary (Don@WriteThisDown.com)