The World before Google

One of the reasons I write this blog is to preserve things, mostly for myself. I often come across something that might be useful to teach with later, and blogging about things forces me to think things out a bit before I file them away. If you are the type of person that tends to procrastinate about thinking about things having a blog forces you to think a bit more promptly.

The other nice thing about blogging is that once you blog something you always know where it is. No hunting around your hard drive or god forbid filing cabinet to find a quote or an idea, just Google it up. Its like having an artificial brain.1

Being able to use technology to substitute for your lack of memory is a fairly new thing. Memory used to be the way people retained knowledge. Two examples. In Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters there are a number of George Orwell’s bits of literary criticism. At a number of points he quotes a bit of verse and says “I’m quoting from memory.” When I first read this I thought Orwell was a show-off. Eventually I figured out that he was being apologetic. All of these were fairly standard poems that any Englishman of his class would have memorized in school, and he was not bragging, but rather apologizing for being too lazy to go check the quotes. (He was almost always right.) I once saw Anthony Grafton give a paper and he told us that Italian Renaissance writers often misquoted the classics in their writing, as a way of asserting that they were working from memory, rather than looking up quotes like a bunch of clerks. (Of course these misquotes never involved mistakes in Latin grammar.) To be an educated person was to have memorized a lot of stuff. Part of this I suppose was the cost of books and the lack of standardized editions. If you found something worth knowing it behooved you to memorize it or, in Europe, to write it down in your commonplace book. Chances were you would never see it again. Modern scholarship tends to be built around remembering where to find stuff, rather than collecting it like a jackdaw.

Chinese literati also paid a lot of attention to memory. Memorizing the classics was part of becoming educated, and memorizing other things was valuable for lots of reasons. One of them is that education is a portable. In his Family Instructions Yen Chih-t’ui (531-591 C.E.), tells his children that

Those who have learning or skill can settle down anywhere. In these disordered times I have seen many captives who, though lowbred for a hundred generations, have become teachers through knowledge and study of the Lun yu and Hsiao Ching. Others, thought they had the heritage of nobility for a thousand years, were nothing but farmers or grooms, because they were unable to read and write. Seeing such conditions, how can you not exert yourselves? Whoever can keep steadily at work on a few hundred volumes will, in the end, never remain a common person. p.54

Yen lived in a society where being literate would mark you out even among aristocrats. He himself managed to serve under four dynasties, which is proof that you can get a long way by being educated. Part of the purpose of education is transforming yourself into a particular type of person (the Confucian self-cultivation thing) but part of it also is knowing enough stuff, and knowing it well enough, that you can use it in your conversation and writing. The ability to interact well with other aristocrats is pretty important. I think when he says you can go a long way by knowing Lun yu and Hsiao Ching. he does not just mean you should have read them. (They are pretty basic texts.) What he means is that you need to know the text, the commentaries, and the textual traditions associated with them well enough that you can hold your own. You need to become thoroughly conversant with things, and stay that way from constant review.

When a man is young his mind is concentrated and sharp; after maturity his thoughts and reasoning powers are scattered and slow. For this reason we should be educated early, so as not to loose the opportunity. When I was seven years old I could recited the fu poem describing the Ling-kuang palace, and by reviewing once every ten years I can still recall it. After my twentieth year, if I put aside for a month the classics I had read, then my memory was vague or confused. p.61

In fact the thing that he seems to be most worried about is that his family will embarrass themselves by committing a solecism.

Old literary allusions cited in speeches and writings should be personally checked, not based on hearsay. The so-called scholar-officials in the villages south of the Yangtze are usually not well educated, but as they are ashamed to appear mean and uncultured, they write what they know from hearsay evidence, using ill-fitted classical terms to embellish their sentences.p.77

He then goes on to list a bunch of silly mistakes caused by “learning by ear.” Access to texts, i.e. wealth and connections is part of getting to be properly educated. There more to learning than money, however. Lots of things are not clearly explained in texts. Classical allusions are not self-evident. Someone has to teach them to you, and you have to remember them. Place-names, proper pronunciations, and the origins of words, you need to know all of these. What if you mistook the 荇菜 plant for the 苋菜 plant? Or thought that a hill associated with an ancient hero was just a regular hill? Is it proper to refer to the owner of a puppet show as ‘Kuo the Bald?’ To us these sorts of questions don’t matter much because we see names as arbitrary. Yen is obsessed with questions of philology and phonology because he thinks understanding words will help us to understand the universe.Knowledge is not just a bunch of facts you can google up, or owning a bunch of reference books you can look for things it. It is becoming a type of person, and this is something that you can only do in your head.

1 Of course one drawback is that everyone and their brother can look into your brain


  1. Professor Baumler, thank you for a nice little essay about a subject that is more important than it looks. May I add a couple of observations?

    To those who live in uncertain times, knowledge is indeed prized for its portability: but some kinds of knowledge are more portable, and therefore more valuable, than others. I went to school with a man who had fled Czechoslovakia as a boy soon after the Soviet invasion of 1968. He got a Ph.D. in statistics and he told me he picked that field because as a refugee he had discovered how most kinds of expertise were bound up with a particular social or political milieu, and he wanted a science that he could be sure would remain valid and in demand everywhere. Another example: one of my teachers was an old woman from Vienna who recounted the spring day in 1938 when she successfully defended her doctoral dissertation on Austrian Law. After the congratulations were finished, she emerged and heard a commotion in the streets. “It’s the Anschluss,” she was told — and she knew at once that her doctorate was useless.

    You say the ability to look things up successfully is crucial to modern scholarship. It is, and — contrasted with a hodgepodge commonplace book — it should be. But often (and I don’t think you were saying this) it is contrasted with knowing things in one’s head, the implication usually being that you don’t need to know something if you know how to look it up. I believe this is a sophistry. The disadvantage of not knowing something is that you often don’t know you don’t know it, so you may never see a reason to look it up. But there is a bigger case to be made for general knowledge: it provides a kind of gestalt map in which new data can be interpreted. As you suggest, such interpretation has a social dimension, and a body of shared knowledge provides tools for collaboration.

  2. I found your “quoting from memory” examples from Orwell and the Renaissance writers to be very interesting. I would have thought Orwell was showing off, too, but I guess the apologetic interpretation makes more sense. Thanks for the post!

  3. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I’m trying to grapple with the ways that practices of writing history altered that history in early modern Burmese and Tai chronicle narratives.

    In some extreme cases the claim is made that there was *only memory* and *no original document*. In the case of the Mon monk of Athwa (c. 1740) who fled from a worn torn area without any manuscripts and rewrote the whole corpus of Mon literature from memory. Today his name is almost synonymous with Mon literature. I personally find it hard to believe that he relied completely on memory, but then again I’ve heard of some pretty tremendous feats of memory (Source:

    The often very personal processes of writing and composition that you discuss are often unrecoverable but there must be cross-cultural universals (and reading, who read, why, and what they did with it).

  4. Whoops. Wrong link above for the Monk of Athwa. Here is the right link:

    >Modern scholarship tends to be built around remembering
    >where to find stuff, rather than collecting it like a jackdaw.

    Observation: Because they allow direct linking as a form of citation, online historical sources like Geoff Wade’s Ming Shi-lu could result in more reliable history or at least narrow the range of things that historians argues can argue about.

  5. Jon,

    I agree that it is hard to believe that people can remember all that stuff, but part of the reason that we think it is hard is that we are in a very different intellectual world. We don’t learn to memorize things, and the intellectual tradition we live in is entirely different. Three examples.

    -The best known, at least me, is the reconstruction of the Chinese classics after the Qin dynasty. This one is not very surprising, since knowledge of the classics was central to elite education. Part of becoming educated was to memorize these things. Even here though there were differences in what was remembered, leading to the whole Old Text/New Text controversy.
    -An example that I know less well is the memorization of the Vedas in India. Supposedly a lot of castes had people who had memorized the Vedas, and finally in the 19th century the British convinced somebody to let them write it all down. This opened the floodgates, since once one caste had opened up everyone opened up. It turned out that although this memorized tradition had been maintained separately all over India the texts were almost exactly the same.
    -A final example is the advisor of one of my grad student buddies. When he was a graduate student he used to bet that given 20 minutes he could memorize an entire column of the phone book and recite it without error. This may seem like a pointless stunt, but he always claimed that there were two important things about it. One was that it proved he was a good ancient historian. Since the ancients have fewer sources than we moderns they have a different relationship to them. Second, he denied that it was a useless stunt, since each time he demonstrated his ability he won a pitcher of free beer, which is not quite the same as knowledge of universal truth, but it is free beer.

    The final example is what the ability to memorize things is today. Not really of any great scholarly use. The Indian example is sort of an odd one, since I recall reading that one of the reasons that the memorized versions were so accurate was that the people memorizing them had no idea what they meant, and so there was no reason to change anything. The most interesting for me is the Chinese classics case. Here you have people for whom mastery of a body of knowledge is essential to what they are. This was particularly true for people like Yen, for whom being able to use the classics in conversation and in writing all the time was essential to being what they were.

    All of this is of some interest to me at present since I am currently starting a new project and am in the process of taking notes on things, i.e. using artificial memory. It is a very slow process because I am not at all sure what I am doing with this project, and thus I am taking notes on everything that I can imagine would ever matter. Eventually I will mine this data for all the information I need and then forget it. Even now I can look at old notes and they seem to have been written by an entirely different person. I can’t think of any body of knowledge that is for me what the Vedas were for those Indian guys, something worth memorizing even though its meaning is beyond me. Nor is there any knowledge I can think of that is really worth internalizing the way Chinese literati did. Nor, sadly, can I think of any knowledge that will get me free beer.

  6. There are substantial literatures on memorization, and memory theory, in a variety of cultures. Traditional India is, of course, known for “scriptures” that were supposed to be translated only by oral transmission. But Judaism, the classic “text-based” religion, also put a high value on verbatim learning, particularly of the vast post-Biblical legal and homiletic literature. (Partly to avoid too obviously creating a new written canon, but certainly out of practical necessity.) Into the twentieth century, memorization of the post-Biblical law-code, the Mishnah (producing “living Mishnahs” who could recite it at will when called upon) was considered a pious act, suitable for men unable to afford, or master, the Talmudic arguments that interpreted and applied it. Barbara Holdrege’s “Veda and Torah: Transcending the Textuality of Scripture” (1996) actually compares these two traditions, and their theories of revelation and authority. I found it illuminating for both. (And, where I could check reputable secondary sources and translations, impressively reliable on fairly esoteric points).

    For Europe, a basic work is still Frances A. Yates, “The Art of Memory” (1966), which set out a long chain of memory theory and mnemonic devices, especially visualizations, from Simonides to the Counter-Reformation; incidentally explaining the epistemological status of religious art at different periods in exceptionally clear terms. Despite a tendency to draw larger conclusions than the evidence may warrant (indulged more obviously in her later books), Yates’ survey is quite impressive. Sinologists in particular may already have made the acquaintance of it by way of Jonathan D. Spence’s 1984 book on “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci,” which deals with one of the later flowerings of the ancient “Ars Memoria.” (Amazon pages for these books link to a variety of more recent publications, most of which, alas, I have not read.)

  7. Sorry: I hit the wrong spell-checker prompt, and replaced the incorrect “transmited” not with “transmitted,” but with “translated.” Which makes no sense, but does illustrate why the spoken word is sometimes superior.

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