In the Palaces of Memory (Magill Book Reviews)
George Johnson, a NEW YORK TIMES journalist and author of MACHINERY OF THE MIND: INSIDE THE NEW SCIENCE OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (1986), begins his new book with a statement so arresting it should be enshrined in writing classes as an example of how to hook a reader: “Whenever you read a book or have a conversation, the experience causes physical changes in your brain. In a matter of seconds, new circuits are formed, memories that can change forever the way you think about the world.” As the implications of that remarkable fact sink in, it becomes easy to believe Johnson’s assertion that, for the three years he spent working on this project, it was difficult for him “to maintain” much of an interest in anything else.”
Unfortunately, IN THE PALACES OF MEMORY doesn’t live up to the promise of its provocative opening. Johnson tried to write several books a the same time. He wanted to show “science in the making,” the necessarily messy process of theory-building and testing, the many false starts and the rate breakthroughs—all of which gets radically simplified and cosmeticized in after-the-fact textbook accounts. Yet by tying his account to work-in-progress, Johnson runs into the same problem that besets filmmakers who, seeking to capture the quality of ordinary life, create films that are unbearably tedious.
At the same time, Johnson wanted to tell his story via profiles of individual scientist—a strategy employed...
(The entire section is 472 words.)
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In the Palaces of Memory (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
It is astonishing, and perhaps even pleasing, to be reminded that, for all of humankind’s scientific advances, something so simple and basic as human memory remains a mystery. Despite intensive research, no one is able to say precisely how and where memories are stored in the brain. The mechanism that allows one to remember that George Washington was the first president of the United States, that one’s best friend from fifth grade had a dog named Susie, or that the local coffee shop serves a blue-plate special on Thursdays is still one of nature’s best-kept secrets.
In In the Palaces of Memory, the scientific race to uncover this secret is documented in exquisite detail. George Johnson, a New York Times journalist, gives a rich (and, for the nonscientifically inclined, sometimes dizzying) account of the latest theories and experiments. His book is not an encyclopedia of all that is current in the field of brain and memory research, nor is it an argument for one particular theory over another; rather, In the Palaces of Memory is an action-adventure story. It is the heat of the race to uncover the workings of memory that makes Johnson’s book so fascinating. In the Palaces of Memory is as much about the way scientists actually discover things as it is about the knowledge produced by science itself.
For the uninitiated, Johnson’s book is an eye-opener. One meets scientists with egos, blind spots, petty...
(The entire section is 1883 words.)