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With everything recorded in books, what happens to memory?

THE ASIAN AGE. | SRIDHAR BALAN
Published : Dec 29, 2017, 12:14 am IST
Updated : Dec 29, 2017, 12:31 am IST

The secret police discovered he is a Russian and incarcerated in a concentration camp for two years.

In the absence of writing and the ability to record information, people were forced to use and develop their memory to remember. With this newfound power, the Pharaoh believed people would no longer use their faculty of memory and simply refer to the written text to recall something that they had forgotten. (Representational image)
 In the absence of writing and the ability to record information, people were forced to use and develop their memory to remember. With this newfound power, the Pharaoh believed people would no longer use their faculty of memory and simply refer to the written text to recall something that they had forgotten. (Representational image)

The art of writing was discovered initially in Mesopotamia and then in Egypt. Though people would like to believe that writing travelled from Mesopotamia to Egypt through the trade routes, it’s a fact that the Egyptian scripts and writing developed separately. While writing was developed to record facts on government and culture, it’s said that when the Egyptians rushed to the then Pharaoh to say that the god Thoth had now given them the power to write, he’s supposed to have remarked “what will happen to memory now?”

In the absence of writing and the ability to record information, people were forced to use and develop their memory to remember. With this newfound power, the Pharaoh believed people would no longer use their faculty of memory and simply refer to the written text to recall something that they had forgotten.

My family members always comment on my memory and my uncanny ability to recall events or facts. The wife, of course, believes that my mind is like a filofax but is selective and filled with a lot of useless information. How do I seem to always forget instructions that have been given but remember other things? I can remember the number of my first passport issued over 40 years ago, landline numbers of all the houses we lived in Calcutta (now Kolkata) from the mid-50s onwards and the car registration numbers.

This proved embarrassing when dropping my sister in Mumbai many years ago as the double-decker bus made its round of the Dadar Circle and I was able to spot my brother-in-law’s car in the parking lot. I was able to spot my sister waiting to cross at the intersection and direct her to the parking bay. When my brother-in-law went to the car, he found his wife and was not particularly amused. He had brought a surprise gift and now it was blown! Though I was forgiven in time, I still remember the Delhi registration number of the Fiat that was transferred to Mumbai, DLK 4045.

Later when I joined the publishing industry, the ability to recall and remember came in very handy to remember the backlist along with the new titles being published. The sales staff was always encouraged to spend time in the company showroom in the evenings to familiarise themselves with the books. The showroom in Daryaganj used to attract academics like Romila Thapar, Ashis Nandy and Upen Baxi who loved to browse, select and buy. Romila was a regular who would even go down to the basement to ensure they had not forgotten the author’s discount. The showroom staff never failed to inform if these distinguished visitors were in the showroom. Romila would always complain that meeting me proved costly as she would wind up buying more, far exceeding her budget.

When we launched Yash Ghai’s, The Political Economy of Law, at the showroom, we had the eminent legal luminary Soli Sorabjee as chief guest. As a reception was to follow the launch, my finance officer was unhappy at the expense. I told him not to worry for I had remembered that Soli was a jazz fan. I was able to show him a great collection of books on jazz published from our New York office. Soli made his selection and we were able to recover the costs of the party even after giving him a good discount!

Professor Chandra-sekhara Rao, a political scientist, used to always spend time in the showroom when in town for UGC meetings. He always believed in spending his allowances in buying books. It was a pleasure for me to show him Herman Finer’s The Theory and Practice of Modern Governments in two volumes. His eyes lit up as it had been reissued with a new introduction. He then spoke to me of Herman’s younger brother Samuel Finer’s monumental work, The History of Government from the Earliest Times, in three volumes. I met Professor Rao years later while giving a lecture at Osmania University and he chided me for not recognising him instantly!

Stefan Zweig whose The World of Yesterday is one of my prized possessions wrote a story Mendel – the bibliophile in 1929. This has inspired the introduction to Jorge Carrion’s ‘Bookshops’ which has recently been translated from Spanish into English by Peter Bush. In the story, Zweig takes shelter from the rain in a Viennese cafe. After shaking off the droplets of rain from his clothes, he gradually takes stock of his surroundings. Taking in the chairs and the billiards table, Zweig suddenly remembers he has been here before.

He was in the Cafe Gluck where the bookseller Jakob Mendel had once sat religiously at the same table, everyday from 7.30 am till closing time, surrounded by books and catalogues. Mendel had originally trained to be a rabbi but the world of books had seduced him.  He became the ‘Great Mendel’ a marvel of human memory, a bibliographical phenomenon. Whether a book was published two hundred years ago or just yesterday, Mendel would remember its title page, the place of publication, the name of the author and its price. And he would be able to do this for all the new as well as secondhand books and in all the different editions.

Mendel knew about every field. In fact, he knew more than the experts in that field. He knew more about the libraries than the librarians themselves, knew more about publishers’ lists and stocks than the publishers themselves. He had nothing at his command than the magic of memory and his uncanny ability to remember and recall. He had no bank of cards or a file index.

Mendel’s knowledge is truly phenomenal but it is that of an itinerant bookseller with a portable library and without a licence to sell.

But now Zweig realizes that the table where thousands paid homage to Mendel is strangely empty. Mendel is a man of peace. He has no papers to prove his domicile.

The secret police discovered he is a Russian and incarcerated in a concentration camp for two years. He is released due to the intervention of powerful friends but in a skirmish he has lost his glasses and can no longer read. He returns to the cafe but it’s no longer the same and Mendel is finally evicted and dies a lonely death.

The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books

Tags: egypt, book