Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Memory and Earthsea
My parents have a plastic santa head with a motion detector in it. It is made to hang on a door so that when visitors arrive they are greeted with a "Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!" This is followed by music that was probably meant to be a cherry carol but is so warped and computerized that it ends up sounding like the theme song to some 80's horror-movie Christmas villain.
I don't remember when my parents got the Santa, but I do remember that dreaded music grating on my nerves every Christmas for years. I wasn't alone either, but instead of getting rid of the darn thing my family turned our collective hatred of that music into a game. We'd arrive home from Christmas shopping and duck down, dragging our bags and slowly opening the door. We were like cat burglars contorting to avoid laser sensors in some museum heist, but if we failed the sound was worse than any mere alarm.
At some point the Santa disappeared. I suspect that I may have even been the one behind it, although memory fails me. Maybe he was simply lost, because while my mother was looking through the attic this year, she found him.
I kept the discovery a secret from my sister, then on Christmas morning I snuck out to put him up. We all had a good laugh and enjoyed ducking to avoid him once more. After all, the holidays are a time for tradition. Even if that tradition drives you crazy.
It was with this mindset that I decided to re-read A Wizard of Earthsea. My mother read the trilogy to me when I was a child, but I was so young and my memory is so poor that I had forgotten everything about it except for a deep sense of love and comfort probably emanating from the warmth of my mother's arms and the sound of her voice just as much as the story itself. I have been meaning to re-read it for a while now, but I was afraid that it wouldn't live up to my memory of it and that reading it again might therefore mar those lingering feelings of contentment that I associated with it.
I needn't have worried.
I found the exact copy that my mother read to me on her shelf, and sitting on my grandmother's wingback chair, eating my mother's snowball cookies, and surrounded by my family I felt perfectly content as I read it.
I was there less than a week and was busy with preparations and celebrations but I managed to find the time to read the first two novels and a bit of the third before I returned home, where I could pick back up with my own copies of the same editions. I worked in a used book store and I collected them as they turned up because just seeing those old cover illustrations brought back such happy memories.
Memory is a strong theme in the novels. In the first, Ged's training largely consists of memorizing names and histories and he is stalked by the memory of a foolish mistake he makes in his youth. In the second, Tenar must memorize the twists and turns of the labyrinth while she struggles to remember her own past. In the third, the major threat is literally a plague of forgetfulness. Throughout the trilogy the importance of remembering the history of Earthsea and its traditions and the threat of forgetting is emphasized in various ways from wizards who change into an animal too often and forget who they are, to people who forget the existence of magic entirely.
This makes me wonder about today's age when there is so much talk of technology replacing the need for memorizing information. If you see an actor that looks familiar you don't have to struggle to remember where you saw him, you can just check out his IMDB page. If you forget the lyrics to a song it's incredibly easy to find them. Education is turning away from fact memorization to project-based learning and meta-cognitive skills. On the one hand, I agree that students shouldn't be made to memorize the postal abbreviations of all fifty states and I agree that project-based learning and meta-cognitive skills are important. On the other hand there are benefits to memorization beyond information recall.
For example, many people would argue that there is no need to memorize poetry. It's simple to look up a poem if you need to reference it, especially if it is in the public domain. Yet I've found that when I memorize a poem I come to understand it in an entirely different way. There's something comforting about the act of memorization and I feel a far deeper personal connection to poems that I have memorized. Just because something isn't necessary doesn't mean that it has no value.
I don't regret that new technologies make information so accessible. There are plenty of things I'd rather not commit to memory. And I know the idea of memorizing poetry doesn't appeal to everyone. But I believe it is important for people to commit something to memory that is meaningful to them whether it's song lyrics, baseball stats, or large chunks of Eddie Izzard's stand-up routines. In an age when we don't need to memorize information it becomes all the more meaningful when we do. To me there's something poetic in the act of memorizing poetry. The most useless endeavors are often the most beautiful.
Above all, it's important that we don't stop studying what came before because we trust we can look it up if we need the knowledge. Sometimes you don't know what you need to know until you know it. We must keep the past alive in our memories from our shared history to personal family traditions. After all, it was only by facing his mistake and confronting his past that Ged was able to move on with his life. Running away from memories won't get you anywhere but tired.