In the Palaces of Memory

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.)