Our memories, said Plato, are impressed on a warm wax slab.
For Cyril Connolly, they are card-indexes fingered by the authorities and replaced in the wrong order.
This anthology takes a forensic eye to the fragility of what and how we remember. In an age marked by Alzheimer’s and alcoholic amnesia, A S Byatt and Harriet Wood have threaded together a topical encyclopaedia.
The book’s first half comprises essays from disciplines as varied as psychoanalysis, neurobiology, philosophy and literature. The essays – somewhat crammed together at the front of the book – are lifted by literary extracts at the back. These range from Virginia Woolf and Aristotle to Haruki Murakami.
One writer, describing the First World War, tells how terror intensifies mundane images, “like single poppies or the scars on a rifle-stock”, carving them deep into grooved and vivid memories. Another examines how the global media are burning our collective memory. Shared images of the twin towers’ collapse, for instance, have created an objective history and politics, undifferentiated by personal experience.
Although western-focused, Memory is a reassuring trawl through snatches of text that are as fragmented as our brains.