A (Missed) Shoutout for Rhetoric: Memory Places in a Cal Newport Self-Help Book

I’ve been reading Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.

It is fantastic. I commend it to all of you. It has led me to transform many of my work habits.

At the same time, I found myself laughing and then groaning when my very own academic discipline and research interests (almost) made a guest appearance for a popular audience right there in the chapter about “Rule #2.” Newport was talking about memory, the fifth canon of ancient rhetoric—apparently completely unaware that he was doing so.

In retrospect, the part of this experience that is most concerning to me is that there was no mention of the history of those ideas: the mnemonic innovations were framed as Newport’s insights, mined from professional intellectuals and memory champions, but pitched as exciting new eye-openers rather than age-old tradition.

For a reader like myself who knew the history, this not only seriously undermined the ethos of that chapter, but also raised some concerns for me about disciplinary longevity, general awareness about the development of knowledge, and the role that public humanities initiatives play in helping disciplines get credit for the bodies of knowledge they build.

But first, a little background.

The main argument of Deep Work is that, in today’s distracted world, the ability to work deeply is rare, valuable, and essential. Knowledge work, like that done by software engineers and professional academics, requires intense levels of concentration—these and other types of work are simply not conducive to short bursts of intellectual engagement. Newport makes a convincing case that, because both deep work and knowledge workers are becoming scarce in society, the ability to master deep work will enhance productivity and pay major economic dividends.

The rest of the book outlines a series of rules and suggestions for cultivating deep work habits, systems, and mental capacities. I’ve implemented many of his suggestions in my own work, such as creating a shutdown routine to signal to my mind that I am done working for the day and trying to build a daily four-hour chunk of uninterrupted deep work time into my schedule. The results have truly been astonishing.

The interesting episode I outlined above occurred when reading about a specific suggestion by Newport for developing greater mental capacity. The task is to memorize a deck of cards.

To propose this mental exercise, Newport draws from the stories of people like Daniel Kilov, back-to-back silver medalist in the Australian memory championships, and Joshua Foer who won the U.S.A. Memory Championship. Memorizing a deck of cards is “a key piece of Kilov’s training” that anyone can replicate and “gain some of the same improvements to [their] concentration” (176). Interestingly enough, the ability to memorize a shuffled deck of cards is “a standard but quite impressive skill in the repertoire of most mental athletes” (176). All very fine and good—quite exciting, and interesting to say the least.

Here’s the part that bothers me:

“The technique for card memorization I’ll teach you comes from someone who knows quite a bit about this particular challenge: Ron White, a former USA Memory Champion and world record holder in card memorization” (176).

Except for the technique Newport is about to mention doesn’t come from Ron White at all. It comes from Cicero—and from the rhetorical tradition.

Memory was one of the five canons of rhetoric in ancient Greece, right along with invention, arrangement, style, and delivery. Memory, both in the past and the present, has often been seen as the least important of the canons—receiving the least attention in the rhetoric books and in contemporary rhetorical scholarship (Jasinski 355).

However, there has recently been a resurgence of memory studies in the humanities, an occurrence that has become known as “the memory boom” (Phillips and Houdek). Recent directions in the rhetoric of public memory have caused scholars to analyze monuments, museums, memorials, and even national parks as rhetorical artifacts that argue for certain interpretations of the past—as I do HERE in my recent Kennedy Center Lecture[1].

For the purposes of this blog post however, what is interesting is that the method of memorization articulated in the rhetorical handbooks of antiquity like Cicero’s De Oratore, Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory, and the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium—known as the “method of loci”—is the exact method that Cal Newport says “comes from” Ron White.

The method involves memorizing parts of a speech by connecting them to tangible images like rooms and furniture in a house. For this reason, the method of loci is also sometimes called “the memory journey,” “memory palace,” or “mind palace technique.” The origins of the technique are connected to the story of Simonides of Ceos and the collapsing banquet hall. According to legend,

… Simonides, while dining at the house of a wealthy nobleman after a chariot race, was called outside by two young men seeking an audience with him; after he exited, the roof of the banquet hall caved in and killed the other celebrants still inside. Shortly thereafter, Simonides alone was able to name those who perished by remembering where he had seen them in the banquet hall, thereby identifying the dead so their families could commit their unrecognizable remains to a proper burial. (Vivian 19)

Simonides’ ability to remember each guest by their place around the table established the connection between memory and place. Cicero would reference this legend in De Oratore before inviting: “those who would like to employ this part of their abilities should choose localities, then form mental images of the things they wanted to store in their memory, and place these in the localities” (2001, 2.354). Vivian asserts that this “began the formal tradition of mnemonics” that has been thoroughly traced by Frances Yates in The Art of Memory (20). Yates writes:

“… it was as a part of the art of rhetoric that the art of memory traveled down through the European tradition in which it was never forgotten, or not forgotten until comparatively modern times” (2).

Well, clearly, the art of memory as part of the history of rhetoric has once again (in the short span of 20 years!) been largely forgotten in modern times. Cal Newport’s articulation of the mnemonic device makes no reference at all to any of this disciplinary history or the art of memory as a tradition. He draws on a blog post by Ron White titled “How to Memorize a Deck of Cards with Superhuman Speed.” The post does a nice job of transforming the method of loci into a step-by-step guide, but even that blog post does not acknowledge its indebtedness to the history and discipline of rhetoric for the memorization strategy. The result, to word things sternly, begins to smack strongly of plagiarism—not plagiarism in the juvenile sense of not citing sources, but plagiarism of the more egregious type—taking someone else’s ideas and passing them off as one’s own.

To be sure, my goal is not to fault Cal Newport for this. My experience with his book demonstrates that it was rigorously well-researched, and I am certain it was not his intention to purposefully ignore the fascinating history behind the method of loci. In fact, Newport tries to make connections between the principles of deep work and their precedents in history at every opportunity (1). I’m sure he would’ve been fascinated and thrilled with the chance to include Simonides, Cicero, and Yates in his discussion of memorizing a deck of cards.

More likely, Newport came across Ron White’s blog post, a post that naturally passes on the strategy without any reference to where it might have come from, who invented it, or how White learned it himself. Divorcing the mnemonic device from its disciplinary history not only lies on the spectrum of plagiarism, but it also undermines White’s ethos and simply misses an opportunity to make the article even more interesting and engaging.

In short, as much as I’m eager to try memorizing a deck of cards after reading the chapter, I still can’t help thinking about the problems of divorcing contemporary knowledge from its ancient origins. To say that the method for card memorization comes from Ron White is not only inaccurate, it is irresponsible—it accords credit and novelty where it does not belong and propounds ignorance of the ancient roots and Greco-Roman heritage and tradition that brought the method of loci into contemporary mental athleticism and competition.

In a world where the humanities already suffer from poor or negative PR, it is a particularly egregious offense to claim that today’s memory champions know what they know about memory independent of the work of ancient and contemporary rhetoricians and scholars—people like Yates and Vivian who actually deserve some of the credit for preserving this knowledge and methodology by bringing it into the light anew through research and publication. Without the work of rhetoricians since Cicero such as the renaissance humanists and contemporary classicists, the method of loci may not have endured into contemporary knowledge—and that would have been a terrible loss indeed.

Divorcing knowledge from its sources continually runs this risk: the loss, both present and future, of the types of vital and valuable information that the humanities builds, discovers, recovers, and disseminates.

This doesn’t seem to me to be the type of amnesia that Bradford Vivian would call “productive forgetting.” To the contrary, the history of ideas and disciplinary traditions are well worth remembering.

Perhaps we can credit Ron White or someone else with the specific application of the method of loci to a shuffled deck of cards and not bother with all the history. But I can’t help but feel that both White and Newport missed an opportunity for a cameo by Cicero, and a reminder of the debt of knowledge we owe to the sophists and rhetoricians of the past and present. This of course is the work of the public humanities.

But I must be off. I want to try and memorize a deck of cards.

This post was written by Isaac Richards, Humanities Center Intern. 


[1] For more scholarship on the rhetoric of public memory, see: Dickinson, Blair, and Ott, Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials; Gregory Clark, Rhetorical Landscapes in America: Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke; and Houdek, Matthew and Phillips, Kendall R. “Public Memory.” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, 25 January 2017, web.

Works Cited:

Bradford, Vivian. Public Forgetting: The Rhetoric and Politics of Beginning Again. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010.

Cicero. On the Ideal Orator (De Oratore). Translated by James M. May and Jakob Wisse. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Houdek, Matthew and Phillips, Kendall R. “Public Memory.” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, 25 January 2017, web.

Jasinski, James L. “Memory.” Sourcebook on Rhetoric: Key Concepts in Contemporary Rhetorical Studies, SAGE, 2001.

Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

White, Ron. “How to Memorize a Deck of Cards with Superhuman Speed.” The Art of Manliness 01 June 2012, https://www.artofmanliness.com/living/games-tricks/how-to-memorize-a-deck-of-cards/.

Yates, Frances A. The Art of Memory. Reprint. University of Chicago Press, 2001.

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