I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.

Field Notes‘ slogan.

Via Arts & Letters Daily, Nathan Schneider, senior editor of Killing the Buddha, has a post about the rise of reading via computers, Kindles and iPads, titled In Defense of The Memory Theater:

The Greeks and then the Romans created imaginary edifices by which they could carry entire speeches, taxonomies, and epics in their heads. By the medieval period, this tradition was expressed in Dante’s circles of Hell and Aquinas’s placement of memory within the cardinal virtue of prudence—thereby elevating it to a moral responsibility. As Renaissance polymaths drew from classical and esoteric sources, they designed and even physically built more elaborate theaters of memory. In place of an audience, the 16th-century memory theater of Giulio Camillo presented to its stage an array of images, symbols, and archetypes that amounted to a microcosm of the cosmos. Standing before it, a person could loose the binds of forgetfulness and access the mind’s resources unrestrained. “Whoever is admitted as a spectator,” reported Erasmus, having heard about the theater from a correspondent of his, “will be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero.” Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Yates controversially argued, was designed in this way to help the actors remember their lines. Francis Bacon reportedly had a private memory theater in his home, with painted glass depicting “several figures of beast, bird and flower.”

In the age of inexpensive, printed books, our memory theaters have become both richer and more banal; we have entrusted them to our bookshelves rather than to tricks of mental contortion or cosmic schemata. As I look over my own shelf, I see my life pass before my eyes. The memories grafted onto each volume become stirred and awakened by a glance at the spine, which presents itself to be touched, opened, and explored. Without the bookshelf’s landscape to turn to, that manifest remainder from a lifetime of reading, how would one think? What would one write? …

I confess to feeling the allure of the burning library. Maybe we all do, a little. A culture so willing to downsize and sell off its libraries must. It gestures toward the shadow side of being so dependent on, and thus protective of, a bookshelf. When it becomes my memory theater, what have I become? What becomes of me without it? A passage comes to mind that I first discovered in Yates’ Art of Memory, from the Phaedrus of Plato. Socrates is repeating the speech of an Egyptian king named Thamus to Theuth, the god who has just invented writing:

[T]his invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are not part of themselves will discourage the use of their memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

Plenty has been written about the transition of reading from print to computers; google Nicholas Carr ("it makes us stupid") or Clay Shirky ("it gives us a cognitive surplus") for more. I agree more with the latter than the former.

My focus here is more on memory. High school and college students are often told that lawyers, particularly trial lawyers, need a good memory.

There’s some truth to that, but no trial lawyer uses their "memory" in the same ways in which students are asked to use it. I’ve never known, nor heard of, any trial lawyer sitting down and setting aside time for the express purpose of memorizing facts about a case. It just isn’t how the work is done.

Instead, before a trial, lawyers work their way back and through the testimony and evidence in their cases; the process is less like the memorization of facts for a test and more like the kneading of dough for bread. There aren’t any short cuts, but there also aren’t any secrets about the process, and it’s hard to do it wrong so long as you do it. Keep kneading, and kneading, and kneading, and the case will become second nature.

But the real memorization for a trial begins before the pre-trial process. It begins during the litigation, in the drafting of discovery, in depositions and hearings, and in the preparation for them. That’s where the taking of notes becomes critical, and why I quoted the Field Notes slogan above:

I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.

My practice is to take notes at depositions and hearings, to dictate my thoughts (while reviewing the notes) into a memo soon thereafter, and then to review and to clean up the memo after I’ve seen the transcript itself. By that point, I’ve committed the same information to writing three times: first at the event (through the notes), second in dictation, and third in review of the memo.

After that, I rarely need to review the notes or even memo in detail, because I’ve gone through it enough that I already remember it. The final memo is my memory theater: I skim it, and the depositions, notes, dictations, and transcripts come back to me. My memory refreshed, I can focus on the unknowns in the case. The dough isn’t ready to rise, but it’s been kneaded most of the way.