Speak, Memory ...
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Volume 55, Number 19 · December 4, 2008
Just Remember This
By Michael Greenberg
Can't Remember What I Forgot: The Good News from the Front Lines of Memory Research
by Sue Halpern
Harmony, 256 pp., $24.00
Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov called his book about his childhood years, and in this incantatory title we can hear our human dread of forgetting. "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness," reads the book's first sentence. The crack of light may be described as memory itself—that fickle and unreplicable network of experience and associations from which we construct who we are, who others are, and what we may expect from them and from ourselves.
In the broadest sense, memory is consciousness, because what the brain is doing at all times and in all of its operations is remembering. More often than not, it is a matter of practical cognition: knowing where we left the keys, and then, once we have located them, what the keys are for. But within such memories are vestiges of our emotional and sensorial lives, an intimate network of recollections, unique to each of us, that keys conjure. The neurosystem in which this cascade of memory occurs, with its branches and transmitters and ingeniously spanned gaps, has an improvised quality that seems to mirror the unpredictability of thought itself. It is an ephemeral place that changes as our experience changes, to the point where we are incapable of remembering the same event in exactly the same way twice.
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