Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: 8/21/2012
What is the world’s most powerful depository of knowledge? The Roman Catholic Church? Oxford? The Internet?
Who decides what humanity will remember?
Are ephemera worth remembering?
Michael S. Malone’s new book The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory nuances the answers in a history of writing the dominant narrative. His version of events are some authoritative connections, à la James Burke, from the first cuneiform engravings on Sumerian clay tablets to the innovators of flash memory drives.
Malone wrote PR for Hewlett-Packard before joining the San Jose Mercury-News in 1980 as one of the first daily high-tech reporters. There he touted the accomplishments of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, mostly white men, and became known for predicting the rise of the Protean corporation.
In The Guardian of All Things, Malone accomplishes some tidy historical research and ascribes shaman status on the business of writing memory. Hunting or gathering food is left to others without access to the spirit world and the literati spend time apart from the tribe to tell us what to remember.
“Every era has its dominant metaphors, lenses through which we look at the world.”
Control memory and you control culture, Malone writes.
Who knows the secret handshake?
“Imagine a dragon. Chances are, if you live in the Western world (and increasingly the rest of the world as well) you likely picture in your mind a huge, lizardlike creature with a short snout that breathes fire; a long tail with a spearlike end; a pair of giant, leathery bat wings; and possibly a second, smaller pair of wings on the creature’s neck.”
Apparently the secret handshake involves looking at dragons in this Euro-centric kind of way and ignoring the kinds of dragon that show up in almost every other culture. Malone includes a brief synopsis of those “other” dragons for show: the red Leviathan in the Book of Revelation; the Greek Hydra; the “wingless but flying snakelike dragons” of Asia; the lindworm of Scandinavian folklore; the rainbow serpent of Aboriginal Australia; Quetzalcoatl of Ancient Mesoamerica.
Malone proceeds to connect Bodley 764, a beautifully illustrated bestiary, to the greatest storytellers, mostly white men. The appearance of the fire-breathing medieval dragon in its parchment pages coincided with the revival of knowledge in Europe, so he says. Housed in an Oxford library, this encyclopedia of fabulous animals served as a source of inspiration to fantasy chroniclers Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
J.K. Rowling also researched Bodley 764 when she wrote the Harry Potter series. Malone seems to give Rowling her due. See! Even a woman can learn the secret handshake.
Much of our cultural memory is built around the printed word. According to Malone, the university as a center of learning became a method for pigeonholing knowledge by its major themes. The High Middle Ages also gave rise to another catalogue of memory, the encyclopedia. A demand for educated clerks, scribes and limners fueled the “memory business.”
“The result was a 400-year encounter whose implications extend to the present and reach around the Earth... and even into outer space.”
Malone privileges writing over other sources of memory. What about human artifacts that might give voice to those who never write history?
Predictably, Nikola Tesla becomes a footnote to Malone’s long-winded praise of Edison, a patent litigator, who exercised no restraint in exploiting more scientific and mathematical inventors. Edison might have “developed” a stock ticker, but Malone, like a good public relations professional, treads lightly in claiming he invented the machine.
Read The Guardian of All Things by Michael S. Malone despite my objections for a history of memory and the literati predestined to write its epic story.
Category: Nonfiction, History