01 January 2007

Liability of Literacy

Has anyone else, like me when I first started using a Filofax, ever worried that writing things down would cause one to forget, rather than remember things? Nowadays, gurus like David Allen and Steven Covey preach the importance of writing everything down, so that it won't get lost before you have a chance to do it.

An article in the November 20, 2006 issue of The New Yorker suggests that the very fact of being able to read and write has a detrimental effect on memory. In India's Rajasthan region, a caste of bards called bhopas have been known to memorize epics of 100,000 stanzas (6 times the length of the Bible) and sing them straight through.

According to the article ("Homer in India," by William Dalrymple), "...illiteracy seems an essential condition for preserving the performance of an oral epic....This was certainly the conclusion of the Indian folklorist Komal Kothari. In the nineteen-fifties, Kothari came up with the idea of sending one of his principal sources, a singer from the Langa caste named Lakha, to adult-education classes. The idea was that he would learn to read and write, thus making it easier to collect the many songs he had preserved. Soon Kothari noticed that Lakha needed to consult his diary before he began to sing. Yet the rest of the Langa singers were able to remember hundreds of songs--an ability that Lakha had somehow begun to lose as he slowly learned to write."

As the bhopa tradition dies out, transcribing the epics is necessary to preserve them. Inevitably, some have been lost forever, dying along with the traveling bards who could sing volumes, but not write them down.

Photo of quill pen found in 15th century records from www.nationalarchives.gov.uk.


  1. It's a good thing I'm not required to memorize epics.

    The bane of my existence as a writer is not having something to write on when I've had an idea for a character, or for an improvement to the plot, or to untangle a mess I've written. Flashes of inspiration are often just that--a flash that comes in the early morning hours, or when i'm about to fall asleep or wake up, or when I'm in the middle of something else. I have to capture those, and the best ways I've found is writing them down. I don't trust my memory. Maybe I could if what I had to remember had the benefits of rhyme and meter to give my information structure and form, but my projects and to-do lists are not that melodious. :-)

  2. LOL, Jeff, but thanks for sharing the serious experience of a writer's creative process. You make it vividly clear how important it is to capture those flashes of inspiration.

  3. Nan--the article (and your posting) make an excellent point--if your memory is all you have to rely on--then it's going to be a finely honed machine. I wish I had the memory capacity of the bards. But experience has proven that I don't.

    Of course, though, we've all known people who had to-do lists as long as their arm and they still don't remember to get anything done. :-) There is a bad side to getting it out of your mind if writing it down is the mental equivalent of "dealing with it", and therefore encourages you to neglect the idea/action.

  4. Yes, there is a downside to considering an issue dealt with if it's written down...when you miss doing it in real life and have to deal with the consequences. I've certainly learned lessons like that.

    After spending a few months doing a practise of capturing all my wild ideas, I found that most of them weren't as usable as I had hoped. Or they were interesting ideas, but I just didn't act upon them.

    On the other hand, they are ideas I may act upon someday, or when I'm not really looking. There's no harm in having them. I guess I should stop bemoaning these snatches I've captured and treasure them like bits in a scrapbook, waiting for the day that I want to take another look at them.


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