Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read

It was pleasurable to encounter a familiar reference to Plato’s Phaedrus (which I just assigned in my Media & Culture class) in this Atlantic article on memory in the digital information age.

With its streaming services and Wikipedia articles, the internet has lowered the stakes on remembering the culture we consume even further. But it’s hardly as if we remembered it all before.

Plato was a famous early curmudgeon when it came to the dangers of externalizing memory. In the dialogue Plato wrote between Socrates and the aristocrat Phaedrus, Socrates tells a story about the god Theuth discovering “the use of letters.” The Egyptian king Thamus says to Theuth:

This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.

(Of course, Plato’s ideas are only accessible to us today because he wrote them down.)

“[In the dialogue] Socrates hates writing because he thinks it’s going to kill memory,” Horvath says. “And he’s right. Writing absolutely killed memory. But think of all the incredible things we got because of writing. I wouldn’t trade writing for a better recall memory, ever.” Perhaps the internet offers a similar tradeoff: You can access and consume as much information and entertainment as you want, but you won’t retain most of it.

Source: Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read

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