Joining the Dots – History and Memory



Alison Winter’s book Memory, Fragments of a Modern History.

I read this book for two reasons.  First, I am writing a character who has memory problems.  In his futuristic story, he has treatment with implants of data.  I wanted some background for that. Second, I am interested in history, which always seems in a process of constant rewriting to suit the needs of the present.  I wondered if there were any similarities with personal memory.

Well, for my character, I gained an understanding of how malleable memory is.  Clearly, there is already a science of memory manipulation, whether memories are implanted, boosted, or dampened down with drugs like propranolol. As for my question about history, influential writers such as Frederick Bartlett would say, yes, personal memory is like the broader memory of history.  There is a constant rewriting going on, changing our perspective on the past in light of later events.  A few days ago I happened to watch a video of Apple’s Steve Jobs giving a speech at a Stanford graduation ceremony.  He described various episodes in his life, which were painful or chaotic at the time, which he felt made sense later on.  He “joined the dots going backwards”. Personal memory and history both do this.  It is quite something to see the great shared memory of humanity working in the same way as you or me thinking about our pasts and trying to join our own dots.


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