Case Study: How to (Not) Memorize the Entire Gospel of Mark

UPDATE (2016 July): The Gospel of Mark has nearly 700 verses, and nearly 15,000 words. A few years back, I memorized the entire thing, by verse.

This was a huge, life-changing project, and expanded my vision of what was humanly possible. I could hand someone a Bible and they could ask me any one of almost SEVEN HUNDRED verses. I had complete, random access to every single one. And I’d get the words perfect, or pretty darn close.

But I also discovered that maintaining all those verses was a lot of work. (Especially getting those words perfect.)

So no, I can’t still rattle off Mark 3:7 or 12:10 today.

But I could if I wanted to. I know exactly what I’d do. And that’s pretty crazy.

As I let this knowledge fade, I wound up simplifying my techniques and writing a book about a much easier way to memorize long texts. It’s so much simpler than what I describe below. But if you need random access to hundreds of facts, read on…

UPDATE (2012 October): In the many months since I wrote this, I’ve decided that I need a radically different approach to learning texts. I no longer maintain my memories of each individual verse. The technique I describe here does “work”, but the mnemonics eventually distract you from the real meaning of the verses. Fortunately, I’ve developed a much better method. Expect a longer explanation soon!

[ORIGINAL POST follows:]

The Gospel of Mark has nearly 700 verses, and nearly 15,000 words. I’ve memorized the entire book, by verse. If you ask me for Mark 3:7 or 12:10, I can give it to you. But I tried several techniques before I finally found a combination that worked. And today, I wouldn’t bother with the verse numbers at all.

If you’re interested in memorizing this Gospel yourself, you’ll want to get my forthcoming book Memorize Mark: How to Learn a Whole Gospel by Heart. The book will focus on the best way to memorize an entire Gospel.

Here, I’d like to offer a “behind-the-scenes” perspective, and focus more on what didn’t work, and how I fixed it. So often, aspiring mnemonists learn one particular technique, then get so excited that they think it will work for everything. That’s what I did. But you need the right tool for the job.

The Gospel of Mark was my first big memory project. I began soon after I started seriously researching memory techniques. As I learned more, I kept realizing I had to change my strategy. The story of how I memorized Mark is also the story of how I learned to combine memory techniques.

Basic loci method: Not enough

I can’t remember much about my first attempt. I used a vague kind of loci method, with a mnemonic for each verse, but I petered out around chapter 4. I may have been attaching a number mnemonic to each verse mnemonic. The mnemonic for verse 1:1 had a 1, 1:2 had a 2, etc. Because I kept reusing them, I got hopelessly jumbled.

Also, I had no idea that you had to review (none of the memory gurus were mentioning it). I thought visual mnemonics made everything magically permanent. Heh.

Still, it worked long enough for me to seriously impress my wife with that first recitation.

Storing numbers by position in the loci

The next big discovery was that you could store multiple mnemonics on a single object. Instead of only using, say, your bed, you could use the headboard, the pillow, the mattress, and so on.

I knew I wanted to put each chapter of Mark in its own room of my loci house. But most chapters in Mark have about 40 verses. I couldn’t find 40 unique items in each room. Even if I could, how would I navigate? I didn’t want to attach a number mnemonic every time again.

The solution? I stored five verses on each object. I only had to find about 8 objects, and I could easily count by fives to locate a particular verse. Verse 10 would be on the second object, in the fifth spot. Verse 31 would be on the seventh, in the first spot.

I attached navigational markers to the objects, too: 5 on the first object, 10 on the second object, and so on.

It’s exciting when you can make the loci do double duty. Not only do they store these mnemonics, they actually encode numerical information as well. On the other hand, I’m not sure anymore that storing mnemonics so densely is worth the effort. The classical loci system, with one mnemonic on each object, may even be more effective.

Anyhow, I hunkered down, set up my loci, and tried to find nearly 700 unique mnemonics. Along the way, I developed some cool techniques for generating unique visuals. Eventually, I realized that a little repurposing was okay. A peach (“preach”) could mean one thing in Chapter 13 and another in Chapter 16.

The magic of rhythm

However, each mnemonic still pointed to a long sentence, sometimes multiple sentences. Without rhythm or rhyme, reciting these sentences verbatim proved difficult.

Even the endurance mnemonist Dr. Yip Swee Chooi, who has memorized the precise order and page number for 57,000 words in the Oxford-English Chinese dictionary, didn’t try to memorize the prose definitions verbatim. Memorizing prose is a beast.

I started to lose steam again. Then, while wandering the stacks at Purdue library, I noticed a book called The Oral Style. (I would later discover that this book is extremely hard to find in English.) The author, Marcel Jousse, explained how the Bible actually teemed with rhythms. The rhythms had been partly lost in translation, but only obliterated with typesetting. The good news was that if you smashed the constrictions of the typeset paragraph, you could hear these rhythms again, even in English.

This discovery changed everything. Instead of the relentless focus on visual memory, I could finally activate my verbal memory. I broke every verse into rhythmic patterns, like a poem. The difference was phenomenal. Verses began to click into place.

The necessity of review

With this technique, I got through the entire book of Mark, all 16 chapters. I wrapped up around Easter. I felt splendid. Months went by. And I totally forgot it.

Well, not totally. I could say some of the verses. And I remembered most of the mnemonics, which meant I could give you the gist of Mark 3:7. If you had told me in college that I would one day be able to pluck out any of about 700 concepts by number, I would not have been unimpressed. But that wasn’t good enough now. I had to review.

Although I was in the full flowering of my Linux geekhood, I originally tried to implement spaced repetition using paper. I hated the idea of depending on a computer to maintain my memories. I still do; I just hate the idea of messing with all those paper flashcards even more. Calculating the next review date for every flashcard you study is not trivial. It’s good to know how, but in the same way that it’s good to know how to kill and cook a deer.

Eventually, I made an Anki deck. Each verse got its own card.

Chunking dead bits back into a living tale

I thought that was it. Every so often, I’d have someone test me, and I could usually get it right, though I might (like Dr. Chooi) choose the verse before or after by mistake.

Then I finally discovered a subculture of other people who were trying to memorize entire books of the Bible: the Network of Biblical Storytellers. Two things struck me. One, most of them weren’t trying to memorize entire books. They would memorize individual “stories.” Second, they had no interest in the verse numbers. Their focus was the story.

Later, I met another Biblical storyteller, Joey Endicott. He had “only” memorized the first several chapters of John, but he was walking along the Appalachian trail, and speaking John at schools and churches along the way.

After I heard Joey speak a chapter, I realized that while the verse numbers have their scholarly use, the main point was the whole. We normal people wanted to hear the words. I may have memorized the verses individually, but how easily could I speak the actual stories?

Not so easily. I had to hesitate on each verse to check the mnemonic. I had to keep changing gears, from my oral to my visual memory and back again. It was like rush hour traffic in a stick-shift.

All this time, I’d thought that breaking these texts into verses would make it easier. But since the verses were rhythmic, I could get much farther than one verse without a mnemonic. Maybe not the entire book, but I didn’t need a mnemonic for every verse.

So, I added a new set of cards to my Anki deck: one card for each chapter. After some initial skippiness, I was able to say each chapter smoothly. I just needed to include it in my review schedule.

Mature Maintenance

I still maintain my deck of individual verse numbers. By now it’s a trickle of 5 or less cards every day. And every so often, I get a card to recite a chapter.

I definitely wouldn’t bother with verse numbers again unless I had a really good reason. On the other hand, giving classes and talks on memory is an excellent reason to have done it at least once. People get so impressed. Myself, I’m more amazed at how many verses you can string together with just rhythm and meaning. What is the perfect balance between chunking rhythmic verse and using visual mnemonics just when you need them? It’s an exciting field, and wide open.