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The Art of Memory

4.16  ·  Rating details ·  1,260 ratings  ·  81 reviews
One of Modern Library's 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century

In this classic study of how people learned to retain vast stores of knowledge before the invention of the printed page, Frances A. Yates traces the art of memory from its treatment by Greek orators, through its Gothic transformations in the Middle Ages, to the occult forms it took in the Renaissance
Paperback, 400 pages
Published April 1st 2001 by University of Chicago Press (first published 1966)
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Jan 15, 2009 rated it really liked it
I was surprised at the readability of this. But, truthfully, I read it a few months ago and forgot most of what I think about it.
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
a book on the lost art of memory. Before computers and storing everything in the cloud. At a time where a scrap of papyrus or sheepskin (the only things to write upon before printing and paper) cost around the equivalent of 20 dollars and a book cost about as much as a new car, today memory was the main medium of everyday knowledge. The art of memory goes back to Simonides although it has also been attributed to other Presocratic philosophers. Quintilian and Cicero are main sources of knowledge ...more
Aug 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One thing that is impossible to fully grasp about the past is the fact that hundreds of years ago people had significantly different mental worlds to our own. Popular histories tend to entirely sidestep this in favour of drawing parallels and contrasts with current habits of life, while more academic history often struggles with the unwieldiness of explaining it. ‘The Art of Memory’ confronts the issue head on by telling the story of memory techniques used in classical, Medieval, and Renaissance ...more
Jul 30, 2011 rated it really liked it
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This is a fascinating history of the "art of memory"--an imaginary, spatio-visual technique for storing vast amounts of information before the printed page. Imagine a building with which you are intimately familiar, with plenty of space and a logical sequence to the rooms. Now put vivid, lurid statues (preferably "corporeal similitudes" but objects also work) representing the concepts (or specifics) you want to remember in the rooms at appropriate intervals. When you want to remember something, ...more
Jan 10, 2013 rated it really liked it
*Note: After re-reading this review, I am thoroughly unsatisfied with it. Try as I may, I cannot convey just how amazing this book is. Before reading it, I had no idea the depth and breadth of what I didn't know. It has changed the way I read classical and medieval history.

This book opened up to me an understanding of an entire discipline dedicated to memory, which I had never discovered previously. I had to re-read the first three chapters after going over them once because it took awhile to ad
A. McMahon
Aug 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is one of my favourite books of all time, which I have read three times by now. It tells the story of the now forgotten art of memory which was practised in ancient times from its beginnings in Ancient Greece up until round about the Enlightenment, when it fell into disuse amongst the educated elite, along with so much else of the wit and wisdom of times past. It is a great pity that we are not all taught this art of memory at school. This art of memory still forms the foundation of modern ...more
Tony Gualtieri
Sep 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
There are enough reviews here describing the contents and quality of this book. For me, the best part was the palpable sense of discovery the author conveyed as she began to see how Simonides's artificial memory permeated Renaissance culture and became a hidden strand connecting Thomas Aquinas's Method to Raymond Llull's Art to Giordano Bruno's enigmatic Shadows and Seals and on to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz's invention of infinitesimal calculus.
Vince Snow
Mar 05, 2020 rated it it was ok
This review may be more autobiographical than a review, but in 2014 I was working for a summer in Kansas City and we were commuting to Topeka daily, which was about an hour and a half away. I had a lot of downtime and I came across a Wikipedia page (which I could not more highly recommend), The Method Of Loci. I was interested in how people memorized x number of digits of Pi and I got more than I bargained for. It was so fascinating to me, the idea of storing objects in a specific place in a bui ...more
Sep 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The scope of this book is huge. One can only wonder at the years of work and study necessary to write it. From a practical stand point there is not much to be gained from this book. However, one can learn about the old way of learning without studying medieval Latin treatises or other similar things. And it contains some other incredible morsels like a reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theater, or the influence of the ars memorativa on Leibniz.

All in all, in my opinion, in ars memorativa the
Sep 06, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
One star is slightly misleading, but I couldn't justify the two. The topic of this book is endlessly intriguing, but in the hands of this author it became a Sisyphean battle. Finnegans Wake was a country stroll in comparison. Every single paragraph of the text oozes with this woman's blatant over-education. Not her fault, but neither is it mine to feel completely emotionless towards what she's trying to achieve.

If you're looking for a direction in which to go about pursuing the techniques discus
Dec 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Really cool subject matter, I would never have thought about this subject matter as a subject matter, and even cooler is at the center of the subject matter is a mystery, and so you aren't even sure what you are reading about exactly. The beginning of a study, so much untapped into, although also, rather anglo-centric. Maybe some new academic will expand (or maybe has?)this study to include african or asian systems of memory...
Oct 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I discovered this book when I was at university years ago and it captured my imagination completely. I loved the descriptions of the Memory Theatres in particular and I found it really well written.
Gbade Gabriel
Mar 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Understanding memory has been one of man's greatest interest and achieving the little knowledge we know of our own mind is a great accomplishment as is.

Frances A. Yates explains the history of the 'art of memory' as she calls it, starting from the master of memory himself - Simonides and the unknown author of Ad Herenium. Giving detailed descriptions of how to go abaout honing one's memory/ I went into this book as a speculator - something in the title and cover drew me in - and came out with in
Peter Thomason
Frances Yates is an extraordinary scholar with a dry and reserved sense of humor. This was a long slog for me but I was determined to get through it no matter how long it took. In terms of the depth of the material covered, it was like taking a 15 week doctoral course, so I treated it that way. No rushing through it; I would read a section, then re-read and underline, then re-read and summarize a paragraph or a page in the margin in my effort to retain as much as possible.

In addition to her car
Jacob Aitken
Dame France Yates' treatise starts off innocently enough: “Orderly arrangement is essential for good memory” (Yates 17). So the ancients thought. The ars memoria by itself is neutral. Yates advances the thesis that Renaissance thinkers used it as a vehicle for the Hermetic tradition. While the medieval tradition did little to develop the art of memory, it did set the stage for Renaissance Neoplatonism, which transformed the art of memory into a hermetic and occultic doctrine (134).

The memory sys
Mar 24, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Pretty awesome book. It's not a how-to book, but a history of people who were quite memorious and how the techniques of memory changed over time. Before the printed word, people were valued for how much they could remember. So since the Greeks, they devised ever more clever ways to remember important things. I've always been fascinated by "Renaisance Men", polymaths, and encyclopedists, but I never understood how someone could hold such vast amounts of information in their heads. Now I know. If ...more
Feb 20, 2010 rated it it was amazing
What a fascinating work. Groundbreaking history told with a lively voice. Yates pioneered work on the history of mnemonic techniques which were far more influential than was commonly supposed. Essentially a whole area of intellectual history had been ignored for the last three hundred years because its occult connections made it "disreputable" (it's interesting the blinders academics can wear, and always worth remembering).

This book has influenced several important writers of fiction in the deca
Jul 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
This is a good introduction to the subject and how widespread the art of memory was up until Leibniz. I felt it lacked a certain context linking the pre-Enlightenment world to our world. For that missing context, try Paolo Rossi's Logic and the Art of Memory: The Quest for a Universal Language.

Feels kind of dumb to award it 4 stars, since the writing is far superior to most 21st century academic publications, but star ratings are always going to be a little arbitrary.
Feb 13, 2010 rated it really liked it
I found this book a while ago--- through the bibliography in Jonathan Spence's "The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci", a book I loved (and used to assign to intro World History classes). Dame Frances Yates is a fine writer about the more esoteric side of late-Renaissance and Early Modern Europe (see her "The Rosicrucian Enlightenment"), and "The Art of Memory" is an intriguing account of both the mnemonic arts in 16th-c. Europe and of the way the era imagined ways to describe the world. A fascinati ...more
Jun 02, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This amazing history of the Art of Memory, dating back into the Roman writings of an unknown writer most often associated with Cicero, was absolutely fascinating, and started me down the long and winding road of my love of Giordano Bruno (that John Crowley helped me with). This book has also led me to the wonderful works of Mary Carruthers on medieval memory.
Wesley Schantz
Feb 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I was pretty sure I saw a reference to Frances Yates in one of CS Lewis' monographs, but I haven't turned it up now that I tried to find it again, dearly as I would like to. My main reason for reading The Art of Memory, though, is that Pullman is quoted in Frost referring approvingly to Yates, and he puts it at the end of his list of reading recommendations. I'm pretty sure Yates is an influence on Crowley's Little, Big as well. Whether these are reasons you might like to read it or not, they ce ...more
Sep 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
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This is a fascinating book -it is on one level a history of a particular mnemonic technique or suite of related mnemonic techniques, but at times seems more like a discussion of the politics surrounding said suite of techniques - from early writings, in which it is presented as a basic method frequently used for memorizing speeches, to the medieval period, in which it is inherently a method of meditating on virtue and sin, to the renaissance, where it is a component of esoteric and mystical thin ...more
Ganesh Ubuntu
Aug 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
It started off as a rather challenging read for me. English is not my first language and academic English is far from being second or even third. The first few chapters ended up being hard work where I had to check quite a few words in a dictionary and reread many paragraphs more than once, forcing my attention to do more than just sliding through the text. I did get a hang of it towards the middle of the book and by the end of it the reading process turned to be quite enjoyable. I guess it says ...more
Tait Jensen
Oct 14, 2017 rated it liked it
This is an intriguing, vastly erudite, and fastidious history of the art of memory. Yates takes us through the muck at certain points with her innumerable references to arcane Italian, French, and Latin sources, but we emerge at the end with a fascinating notion: that the development of memory was, in and of itself, a method for gathering and storing universal knowledge, thus forming a precursor to the Enlightenment era and, eventually, the invention of computing. Yates is at times discursive, g ...more
May 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
From Simonides to Leibniz, this is an impressive book of scholarship. Dame Yates' commanding grip on the history and implications of what is often referred to as an occult science will appeal to those who subscribe to principles of Neo Platonism and Hermetic philosophy (the existence of which plays a fundamental part to the beliefs of the many characters of this book) and also to those who do not. From Ancient Greece to 17th century Europe, Yates' scope may be, at moments, overwhelming but there ...more
Jun 15, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating history of the art of memory. Links up a number of thinkers in refreshing and apparently when this came out, new ways. Some chapters on Lullism and Bruno and the hermetic tradition were a very heavy slog despite being the climax of the author’s most original arguments and I confess to some skimming there. The early chapters through the chapter on Thomas Aquinas were a wonderful survey of mnemotechnics from Greek to medieval European (of course the discussion is limited to the Europea ...more
Janet Abbey
Jan 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I have finished the first three chapters. The miracle of what Yates has done is to give us a Foucauldian Genealogy of The Art of Memory from ancient times to I expect the present, when I get there. It is so readable and in a style that is not linear nor like any other writer. Almost like a letter just for you. One can also read it along with the current outburst of Alzheimers in all our old people who are medicated whether they have it or not it seems. Just forget a few things and - voila! - you ...more
Jun 11, 2019 rated it it was ok
It's not fair for me to give this a rating -- I'm sure it's an excellent piece of scholarship, it just wasn't really what I was hoping to read. There's some interesting stuff in there, and some good lines, but I was hoping for something more along the lines of how to remember stuff rather than arguments about the shape of theatres and the different philosophies of memory. Not for me, alas.
Apr 05, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting theme, Can get a bit dry at times as it gets into very detailed descriptions of the different historical texts - which is great if you really want to understand the history of these Mnemonic techniques but since I was reading it mostly for pleasure it mostly created boredom. If you want you can easily skip over these sections though, As a lot is repeated throughout the book.
Warning: Absolutely don't consider this book if you are interested in the Art of Memory (the actual art, not the book) but didn't read other, modern books or learned at least basic memory techniques or you will be let down. The book is a historical inquiry of how those techniques evolved and how they affected population, art, etc., but it is a very blurry since there is not much material and the book that were actually preserved are quite hard to understand and lack examples, therefore absolutel ...more
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Dame Frances Amelia Yates DBE FBA was an English historian who focused on the study of the Renaissance. In an academic capacity, she taught at the Warburg Institute of the University of London for many years, and also wrote a number of seminal books on the subject of esoteric history.

Yates was born to a middle-class family in Portsmouth, and was largely self-educated, before attaining a BA and MA

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Contemporary young adult literature has often led the way in depicting the real-life issues facing teens from all backgrounds. To delve into ho...
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“Now nature herself teaches us what we should do. When we see in every day life things that are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them, because the mind is not being stirred by anything novel or marvellous. But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonourable, unusual, great, unbelievable, or ridiculous, that we are likely to remember for a long time.” 6 likes
“the soul never thinks without a mental picture’,13 ‘the thinking faculty thinks of its forms in mental pictures’,14 ‘no one could ever learn or understand anything, if he had not the faculty of perception; even when he thinks speculatively, he must have some mental picture with which to think.’15 For” 3 likes
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