Customer Reviews: The Art of Memory
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on July 9, 2000
A book about memory? Mnemonics, eh? Dull stuff...
WRONG!!! This is just about the most engrossing scholarly work I have ever read. Quite apart from displaying a masterly grasp of her subject, which is far more interesting than I would have believed before reading the book, Yates throws fascinating light on a number of seemingly unrelated topics: the Roman art of rhetoric, the architecture of the Globe theatre, the foundations of Renaissance syncretism, the rise of the scientific method, the delightful irony of a patron saint of science turning out to be an arch-magician, psychological aspects of imagination... -- the list is a long one.
However, for me, it is Yates' illumination of the profound relationship between the scientific method and earlier attempts at mastering the universe by magical means, that stands out as a single, most important aspect of the book. In fact, I would go as far as to say that no study of history and/or philosophy of science can be complete without acknowledging and exploring the relevant insights of "The Art of memory".
If you have any interest in human attempts to comprehend and control the universe, a well-thumbed copy of this book should be on your bookshelf!
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on September 12, 2002
If you are fascinated by history or by scholarship throughout recorded time, you should enjoy this book. Francis Yates has created a detailed examination of memory techniques and their evolution over the course of generations. Beginning in ancient Greece and continuing through the Middle Ages, Yates shows how the art of remembering began as a sort of parlor trick and developed into an important skill in both religion and the occult. The influence from both individuals and cultures is described in a scholarly (yet not annoyingly so) way. While this book is not for everyone, its intended audience should be delighted.
NOTE: This book is not a "how-to" manual for memory. It provides only a very general description of memory methods and is instead an exploration of the history of the art.
An excellent companion piece to this book is _The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci_. Both books were listed in the acknowledgements of Thomas Harris' _Hannibal_.
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on December 24, 1999
In this era of gigabytes and floppy disks, it is easy to forget that once upon a time we had to commit things to memory. Yates does a wonderful job of recovering the ``art of memory,'' a complex and fascinating set of techniques that were in common use for thousands of years. Orators would construct elaborate conceptual ``memory palaces'' and use them to memorize speeches of staggering length.
Well-written and erudite, Yates' book is the best work I know of on this subject. She treats ancient GReek times and the medieval era with equal ease. For further reading on the subject, try Spence's _The MEmory PAlace of MAtteo Ricci_ or Carruthers' _The Book of Memory_.
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on December 7, 1998
Yates does an admirable job of researching this art. She begins, as many before her, with the tale of Simonides and his invention of the loci method of mnemonics. She also captures the scope and breadth of an art which traditionally formed part of the liberal studies of any educated westerner, be he Greek, Roman, or German. Yates leads the book towards a more occult vein when she studies Bruno and some of the medieval contributors to this practice. In the book's most interesting moments, she suggests that the Renaissance thinkers' search through the ancient memory treatises directly led to the search for method that Descartes, Bacon, et al. ruminated upon to create the modern foundations of science. Though this is a well-researched, and at times interesting book, the read goes slowly. Many of the themes and ideas appear in an overly repetitive fashion. Further, it is not a 'how to' book but a book on the history of an idea; one will know little about the improvement of memory and all the claims of the ages appear to be tricks at best. The spectacular memories of a few individuals seem less associated with a method and more a function of physiology. Whether or not this ars memoria should be reinstated seems questionable even after this long essay. Worth a read if you have the time and interest; can lead one on a thought-provoking journey with patient reflection.
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on April 25, 2000
I ran into this book after having learned over 3000 Chinese characters through what turned out to be Art of Memory techniques. (See James Heisig's books "Remembering the Kanji" series. Take it from me, the techniques work.)
For anyone who is interested in Renaissance and pre-Renaissance history, art, or culture, I believe this book essential to understanding the mindset.
Heartily recommended. For true mental whiplash, read this back to back with Julian Jaynes' "Consciousness as the Breakdown in the Bicameral Mind". You'll never think of Mind or Memory the same way again.
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on July 19, 2008
I consider this one of the most important books I have ever read. It changed my views on ancient and medieval architecture, memory, and the mind. Specifically, this book is the history of the art of memory. It is about how in the age before books or wide-spread literacy, human beings were able to memorize massive amounts of information. For example, the traveling poets in Greece, Cicero in Rome, etc. It also details some architecture was actually designed to facility memorization. The book also discusses the hermetic tradition, some aspects of alchemy and the zodiac, and other related matters - all within the context of the human mind and the human ability to utilize "mental structures," "pictures," and other "devices" - as well as "architecture" to assist in memory and thinking. This book is a scholarly work and was written by a scholar. It is excellent, but it is not a simple or easy book. It is wide-ranging. You will learn some history and some aspects of memorization techniques. But it is not a book on memorization techniques (but you will understand the most important ones from reading this book). It is much better than a how-to-book on memory or memorization. Again, this is one of the most important books I have read and I encourage the serious reader interested in human memory, thinking, architecture, history, etc. to read this book. Excellent.
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on December 13, 2013
This edition is INCOMPLETE. The fascinating schematic diagram of Guilio Camillo's memory theatre, compiled and drawn by Dame Frances Yates' sister, and mentioned by her in the preface, which follows page 144 of the printed edition, is missing. No mention is made of this being an edited or abridged edition.
The mangling of texts, particularly poetry, in e-publications must stop. The publisher should correct the edition or label it as abridged, or offer a PDF of the diagram at least.
I do not have the heart to give this book less than 5 stars, but the edition deserves censure.
Anyone who may lament that this book "devolves" into a discussion of Renaissance occultism should note that the latter was actually Dame Yates' FIELD. Frances Yates was instrumental in opening the field of Renaissance esotericism, which was not a matter of superstitious nonsense, but rather largely a matter of attempting to reintegrate the major works of the Platonic tradition, which had been lost to Europe for a thousand years, into western discourse. Without an awareness of this material, you cannot appreciate huge chunks of Spenser, Shakespeare, Albrecht Durer, Botticelli, the Romantic poets, Emerson, William Butler Yeats, to present a short list.
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on July 14, 2011
I purchased The Art of Memory in January 2010, so it was what you could call a "slow burner." Basically, I bought it, read 20 pages and then put it on a book shelf for 18 month in order to occasionally look at it and go, "Nope." However, my attitude was changed when I read Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, earlier this year. Grimoires spurred me to think about the relation of magic and occult knowledge to the transition from the religion centered European Middle Ages to the Scientific/Mathematical based present.

Understanding the relationship between Magic and Modernity requires a great deal of context. Specifically, the mind-set or "mentalites" of people living back then, and how what we think today could possibly be related to how they thought then.

The fulcrum point of this transition from "Middle Ages" to "Modernity" was the Renaissance: It was a point where old non Christian/Religious ideas were rediscovered AND new bodies of knowledge or "disciplines" (or, if you are really lame "discourses.") were combined with the existing religious mentalite of the folks living in France, Spain, Italy and Germany (not England.)

The Art of Memory was an aspect of Rhetoric, and as such had a "place" in the medieval scheme of 'higher education.' Specifically, Rhetoric was a part of monastic scholars called the "trivium." (the other members were grammar and logic.) The Trivium was a medieval equivalent of our modern "reading, writing and 'rithmatic." Rhetoric, then, was "the study of the use of language with persuasive effect." (Wiki)

An element of this study was the "Art of Memory." In the ancient, classic sense, the Art of Memory basically consisted of memorizing a specific impressive place/location, identifying the distinguishing points of interest inside the building and attaching the parts of your speech to those features to cue your memory during the speech you are no doubt giving.

Basically, what happened in the Renaissance is that people started building out this "art of memory" and turned it into something much more complicated and interesting by adding levels of detail and incorporating different influences "into the mix" as it were. You could think of it like a modern musical category like rock music with all it's divergent paths, except here it's "types of art of memory."

Over the course of the 16th and 17th century, the embellished Renaissance era rhetorical tradition went "psych," it went "straight" and it went "dark." The Renaissance twist on Rhetoric didn't each England until well into the 17th century/Elizabethan era, so most of the Art of Memory takes place on the continent, with the area of interest shifting from Italy (first), to France and Spain and then to England and Germany.

The psych tradition of Rhetoric incorporated Kabbalistic letter study, psuedo-Classical Egyptian Style Occultism and Astrology into the mix. Readers, who were undoubtedly either Italian noblemen, Artists or Students or Parisian Students, were treated to convoluted metaphysical speculation and complex circular charts with wheels inside wheels. This psych twist was to maintain the ability to inspire right down into the modern period. In one of The Art of Memory's pay-off chapters, Yates makes the (convincing) argument that the Masonic Imagery of buildings and occultism descends from the last remnants of this psych Rhetoric style, specifically the writings Giordano Bruno. Bruno was an author who was super obscure and elaborate, and he operated at the end of the period surveyed in France, England and Germany. Yates makes the case that it is plausible that he could have been responsible for inspiring Shakespearean drama in England the Masonic movement in Germany.

I think he makes a good case in that regard, and I think Modern Library agrees because it was named "One of Modern Library's 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century."

The "straight" tradition of Rhetoric represented the integration first of the religious philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, including his neo-platonism. One of the main differences in the beginning of the split of Rhetoric between "psych" and "straight" is the effort to maintain and amplify the complexity of the art of memory while stripping it of it's more visual elements. What starts in the Catholic church continues through the Reformation. Yates points out that the move by "straight" Rhetoricians to elaborate their own "Art of Memory" has an analog in the icon smashing paroxysms of the Reformation. This branch of Rhetoric influenced early Modern Philosophers and Science, and was quite crucial in the crystallization of the idea of "Method" (as used in "THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD") in addition to being the obvious point of departure for modern Philosophy.

The "dark" tradition of Rhetoric is largely ignored by Yates, but if you are interested in that wing, check out Davies Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. I think that it's quite clear that modern ideas of witchcraft, devil worship, magic spells, witches etc is largely bound up in this "dark wing" of Rhetoric. The overlap between the "psych" wing and the "dark" wing is substantial, but obviously the dark stuff was more controversial, and psych stuff was itself suspect because it incorporated occult materials via classical or pseudo-classical sources.

All of these areas seem like fertile fields for inspiration, since they hover right at the edge of mentality, like a barely remembered folk tale. The imagery itself is quite elaborate and the source material is not accessible to the general public.
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on November 3, 2014
This is a scholarly review of available writings on memory methods. Don't bother buying just for the memory techniques; while they are somewhat adequately covered, this book is about the writings.
I enjoyed the peek into the social uses of memory techniques through the centuries, and how they got entangled with religion and politics.
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on July 9, 2001
An incredible book and very historical in nature. I would refer to the previous reviews of this book in the light of their individual statements. The reviewers helped me in the purchasing of this book, also Yates, and her research on the art of memory does not disappoint me. In fact, this book has taken me in many different directions regarding memory: Loci, mnemonics, mnemotechnics, history, mysticism, magic, mathematics, Egyptology, alchemy. This book is very special because of the implications that a "art of memory" has on our history, and I believe in our future. This book is not the easiest of reading material (I am no history buff) but is a spectacular read.
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