Remembering and Forgetting

What is memory? The traditional answer is that memory is a form of storage; according to this model, remembering is an act of retrieval. Recent studies, however, approaching the subject from quite different perspectives, suggest that remembering is a “creative, constructive process,” akin to imagination: “There is no storehouse of information about the past anywhere in our brain.”

Such is the provocative thesis with which Edmund Blair Bolles begins REMEMBERING AND FORGETTING: INQUIRIES INTO THE NATURE OF MEMORY. Much of the book, however, is only tangentially related to this thesis. Part 1 focuses on the psychology of memory, part 2 on the biology of memory, and part 3 on various kinds of forgetting. Part 4 consists of three case studies. In “The Emotional Memory of John Dean,” Bolles conducts an interesting comparison between John Dean’s testimony during the televised Watergate hearings and the later-released transcripts of the tape-recorded meetings which Dean’s testimony purported to describe. “The Factual Memory of S.” cannibalizes the Russian psychologist A.R. Luria’s classic work THE MIND OF A MNEMONIST: A LITTLE BOOK ABOUT A VAST MEMORY. Finally, “The Interpretive Memory of Marcel Proust” is a cliche-ridden tribute to the author of REMEMBRANCES OF THINGS PAST; Bolles finds Proust to be exemplary in his fusion of memory and imagination.

There are nuggets of interest in this book, but not enough to justify its publication. Bolles’s breezy, ingratiating manner is that of a superficial magazine writer; given the intrinsic interest of his material, his failure is all the more frustrating. Readers in search of a more substantial treatment of Bolles’s thesis will find it in Israel Rosenfield’s recently published book THE INVENTION OF MEMORY: A NEW VIEW OF THE BRAIN.