A septuagenarian in Connecticut has memorized Paradise Lost:

It took John Basinger eight years to memorize John Milton’s 17th-century epic poem “Paradise Lost.” At about 60,000 words, it’s roughly the equivalent of a 350-page novel. It takes Basinger three, eight-hour days to recite the work in its entirety.[…]

Basinger, of Middletown, has been performing the work to modest-sized audiences for years, and now, science has taken notice.[…]

Among other questions, the study explores whether great memorizers are made or born, and what aging does to memory. Basinger is now 76, and still recites sections of “Paradise Lost” every month; he has done marathon performances of the poem in its entirety twice — in 2001 and 2008.[…]

So how did Basinger get all 12 books of “Paradise Lost” in his head? And for that matter, why?

Basinger said he didn’t do it as a stunt or a test of endurance. Instead, he’s keeping alive a storytelling tradition that has pretty much died away.

When most of us don’t even have to remember our own phone numbers, thanks to technology, he wanted to take this long text in antiquated language and bring it to life.

Having retired from teaching theater at Three Rivers Community College in 1993, Basinger was looking for a new challenge and wanted to do something big for the upcoming millennium.

He considered memorizing the “Iliad” or the “Odyssey,” but eventually settled on “Paradise Lost.” Written in 1667, it was Milton’s take on the fall of Adam and Eve and Satan’s plan to poison humanity.

Basinger once joked that memorizing the poem was his way of warding off Alzheimer’s disease. Seamon said he’s on the right track. Taking on new challenges is vital to mental health. It doesn’t have to be memorizing epic poetry; it could be something as simple as taking a cooking class.

He spent about an hour a day memorizing the material while at the gym. On the treadmill, he would take 15 minutes learning seven lines, then review the previous day’s seven lines for another 15 minutes. Over at the weights, he did an overall review of the material. Basinger would read out loud, because the mouth’s muscle movements figure into the memorization process.

Basinger estimates that altogether, he has spent 3,000 to 4,000 hours on memorizing the material. Seamon notes that this correlates with studies that have shown “expert performance is a time-extended process of skill acquisition that is only achieved after numerous, but not lengthy daily sessions of deliberate practice.” In other words, cramming doesn’t help when it comes to memorizing epic poems.

Seamon said one point of interest about Basinger’s method for remembering had little to do with mnemonic devices or constant repetition. Basinger said he spent years connecting emotionally to the material, to the characters and to understanding their motivations.

While being tested at Seamon’s research area, Basinger would often get up to “act out” the words he was reciting.

It’s tempting to think that, having memorized 60,000 words of text, Basinger’s brain would run out of room to retain much else. Seamon said memory doesn’t work that way.

“As far as we know, no one has ever ‘filled up’ their head.”

While keenly aware that I may be disappointing people like the Inimitable and Intrepid Dr. Wandless, who have formed an impression of me based almost entirely on the expectation of sardonic commentary, I really have nothing to say in response but, “Woah!”

And maybe, if a hyphenated follow-up is needed, “Hoo-ee!”

Advertisements