The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory
2012 nonfiction book by Michael S. Malone
A fascinating exploration of the history of memory and human civilization Memory makes us human. No other animal carries in its brain so many memories of such complexity nor so regularly revisits those memories for happiness, safety, … see full wiki
When I spotted "The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory" at my local library I was positively mesmerized by the topic. However, being a scientifically and technologically challenged individual I wondered if I was going to be able to keep up. Nevertheless I decided to take the plunge. I am very pleased to report that despite the complexity of the subject matter Michael S. Malone has come up with a very readable volume. This history of memory proves to be incredibly enlightening and endlessly fascinating. I simply could not put this book down.
So just what happened during the transformation form Neanderthal to modern man some 50000 years ago in Asia and perhaps around 30000 years ago in Europe? As Michael Malone explains it the Neanderthal brain was totally focused on the present. There was absolutely no language and therefore no memory. Neanderthal man could neither remember the past nor contemplate the future. But over time human beings developed the ability to hear and to make sounds. As homo sapiens continued to evolve over the millennia they could talk, form relationships, create art and tell stories. About 10000 years ago hunter-gathers would give way to an agricultural society. Not only would there be spoken languages but as the result of commerce and trade counting and arithmetic and finally written languages would evolve. And as Malone points out "The ability to write meant the ability to record information to remove something from one's own memory and place it into a cache of synthetic memory where it could remain largely untended until it was needed again. This recorded memory could also be shared with others with a precision never before available with human beings passing messages from one to another." Thus, we have the beginnings of recorded history.
In "The Guardian of All Things we discover that Egypt played a significant role in the advancement of memory. Malone touches on the role hieroglyphics played in the process and also discusses the emergence of papyrus as a lighter, much more portable and extremely durable medium to write on. Then there is the Library of Alexandria built in the 3rd century B.C. and sadly destroyed by fire in 50 B.C. This was the first attempt in the history of mankind to capture, catalog and store mankind's collective knowledge and memory. It was a huge step forward. Fast forward now to the 12th century where we see the emergence of universities in Europe. The university had four major tasks--to educate, preserve, translate and investigate. Meanwhile, the primary task of Europe's scholars was to capture and collate all of this collective memory. It was about this time that the idea of the encyclopedia began to gain favor.
Another significant chapter in the history of memory was a type of book known as the bestiary. This incredibly expensive format was extremely popular between 1180 and 1290 A.D. According to Michael Malone "The best of them combined dozens of exquisite paintings, many of them masterpieces. As for the animals themselves this isn't some modern field guide. Rather, the selection of creatures ranges from the prosaic (mouse, cat and dog) to the fabulous (unicorn, phoenix, manicore and of course the dragon." There can be little doubt that the creation of books such as these are the primary reason that such mythical beasts still exist in human folklore to this day. Very fascinating stuff!
In the second half of "The Guardian of All Things" Michael S. Malone focuses on the inventors, entrepreneurs and technologies that have combined to advance human memory over these last many centuries. Some of the names will be quite familiar to you while others you have probably never heard of. Among the significant inventions discussed as the printing press, the automatic loom, the tabulator, photography and Thomas Edison's phonograph. And as Malone points out "the phonograph's subsequent effect on human memory is almost incalculable. Amen! And of course as we move into the second half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century the advances are even more breathtaking! Perhaps the most ground-breaking of all of them was the transistor. The transistor made it possible to produce smaller, more efficient and more durable products and opened up an exciting new world of possibilities for both inventors and entrepreneurs alike.
I suppose that the best way to sum up this history of memory is to borrow from the title of an old Grateful Dead album--"what a long strange trip it has been." Indeed! Memory is now free. With the emergence of the internet there is little need for any of us to memorize any more. What matters most is our ability to access information and to analyze it. One cannot help but wonder what fantastic advances lie ahead of us. I thoroughly enjoyed this book although at times I did struggle with terminology. But it was well worth it! In my opinion "The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory" would be a great choice for history buffs, technology geeks and general readers alike. There is much to be gleaned from this well written and meticulously researched book. Very highly recommended!
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