Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Memorising Books

"All of us have photographic memories, but spend a lifetime learning how to block off the things that are really in there." Granger in Fahrenheit 451. In Fahrenheit 451 there is a group of men who memorise books because they want to preserve them if all the physical copies are burned.

This was the natural state of books before the printing press. The Iliad, the Táin Bó Cúailnge and other epic poems were designed to be memorised and recited rather than read. But what books do people memorize now? I have included the text file size to give some idea of how long the book is.

The Bible 4.2 MB
I have never heard of anyone who memorized the bible but it does seem oddly popular. A Plan For Memorizing The New Testament In 5 Years. The New testament is 996 kB in size. I have never met anyone who has memorised the bible. How many people have?

Milton: Paradise Lost John Basinger did this in his 70's. 12 books, 10565 lines and 60,000 words in 8 years. The filesize is about 495 kB.

The Qu'ran 1.1 MB People who have memorised this have a special name of Hafidh. 'The total number of hafidh and hafidhas currently alive in the world has been estimated in the tens of millions.'

'But becoming a hafiz is also believed to bring rewards in the hereafter, guaranteeing the person entrance to heaven, along with 10 other people of his choosing, provided he does not forget the verses and continues to practice Islam.'

'The children, ages 7 to 14, are full-time students, in class 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, even in the summer. But they are not studying math, science or English. Instead, they are memorizing all 6,200 verses in the Koran, a task that usually takes two to three years.'

that is three years of full time work? Over 5000 hours or over half way to Gladwell's 10000 hours theory. Presumably once you spend 5000 hours memorising the Qur'an you would spend a considerable amount of time thinking and discussing it. Which means there are millions of near genius level experts in the Qur'an in the world.

I can think of things I would rather be an expert in but it is worth considering what it is about the Qu'ran that devotes this level of commitment to it.

Mao: The Little Red Book 273kb

One of the most read books ever. It still seems remarkably popular given it was written by the man who killed the most people ever.

'Acknowledging that she had never memorized Mao's quotations, Chen Di said the indoctrination of Mao, which was still inscribed on a few school walls today, was impressed in her mind as a primary school girl.' I cannot find a figure on how many people memorized all of this book but at 900 million copies 'sold' and many of them expected to memorise large passages it must be in the millions.

The Torah: Memorizing the Jewish holy book seems to have an important place in the religion but I cannot get any figures on how many people today have done this.

Can you think of any others? Dr Seuss' 'Cat in the Hat' has probably been memorised by many adults just from reading it to their kids a thousand times.

Books designed to be memorised, like the iliad, have tricks involving characters, meter, rhyme and rhythm. I have gotten two books recommended by Josh Foer, The Book of Memory and Memory in Oral Traditions that examine these methods. So hopefully I will blog about these tricks again.

The effort people must go to to memorize a book is incredible. We can now buy books for the cost of a few hours work. Or a kindle that we can get thousands of books on gutenberg for under sixty euro. Books are 0.2% of the average Americans spending. To think that we have such a low cost per hour worked on a physical or digital book now but people will still spend thousands of hours memorizing one is amazing.


komarudin bin sayuti said...

Hello, I want to add several books which are memorized by Moslems. They are hadith collection books. Hadith are the saying, action or statement of Prophet Muhammad. There is more information here: I know this because my teacher said that in his bachelor, it is compulsory. My brother also needs to memorize a book about Arabic grammar. IMHO, we are not Arabic people and most of us are not fluent Arabic speaker.

red dave said...

Thanks Komarudin

I have hear the figure that only about 20% of Muslims speak Arabic natively. which means millions of people are memorising a book in something that is not their first language. Which is even more impressive if you think about it.

The Beer Nut said...

Presumably once you spend 5000 hours memorising the Qur'an you would spend a considerable amount of time thinking and discussing it.
I dunno. I'd say learning something by rote might make it less likely that one would dissect and analyse it.

it is worth considering what it is about the Qu'ran that devotes this level of commitment to it.
I think it's just a historical peculiarity from the origins of Islam: Christianity was racked by schism at the time so the designers of Islam took enormous pains to try and stop that from happening to their new religion. Memorising the Qu'ran secures it as indusputably canonical. Having no truck with translation helps massively as well, despite the difficulties for non-Arabic-speakers, as komarudin points out.

red dave said...

Thanks BeerNut

Why the Qu'ran was laid out in a memorable way and why translation is frowned upon is fascinating.

Which reminds me I have to finish The Qor'an: a biography by Bruce Lawrence so I have some clue about all this.

Cathy said...

Really interesting post.

Coffee Lemon said...

I wonder, if you would concatenate all the song lyrics you know by heart, would that amount to a decent filesize?
Probably not like a religious book but more than Dr Seuss.

red dave said...

Good question Coffee. The only estimate I can find of what people have memorised is around a thousand songs
There was even a gameshow about this't_Forget_the_Lyrics!

I wonder if they have 'don't forget the Qu'ran' on Saudai telly?

Thanks for the comment Cathy!

Anonymous said...

books of the talmud.

Anonymous said...

chess books