- Borges and Memory: Encounters with the Human Brain by Rodrigo Quian Quiroga
Contrary to what its title may suggest, this book is less an analysis of Borges's literary treatment of how our memory works than a presentation of historical and cutting-edge research on the same subject. Borges, in other words, is not the subject of the study, but its most important rhetorical channel. It may come as a surprise that the Argentine-born and -educated neuroscientist Rodrigo Quian Quiroga did not know of "Funes the Memorious" and other famous stories by Borges when he started working on the functioning of the human brain (the author does not focus on the distinction between mind and brain, just as he does not stick to the difference between body and soul), but it makes his personal account only more vivid and intriguing. For after all, Borges's tales, many of them from the 1940s, give as vivid a description of human memory as today's most sophisticated visual theories and representations, even if they do it in a way that modern scientists may label definitely non-scholarly.
Borges, however, had perfectly understood the essence of memory, which has of course to do with storage and retrieval but also, and perhaps even more importantly, with forgetting, filtering, selecting, on the one hand, and abstraction, generalization, categorization, on the other hand. Memory can only function as we want it to do if we are capable of leaving many things aside, while relying at the same time on the possibility to label, classify and pigeonhole what we retain in the various times, layers and types of memory that contemporary brain science helps differentiate. Just as Borges tells his readers about memory by describing the strange case of Funes, a man who remembered literally everything he had ever experienced but proved incapable of "thought," i.e. of creative thinking, Quiroga presents his overview of neuroscience by highlighting a wide range of illnesses, disorders, and freak stories that all insist upon the same message: the vital necessity of forgetting and generalizing, as well as the horrible consequences they incite in the human mind and human behavior.
Quiroga's book may not contain much new information on how neuroscientists study and represent memory nowadays, but the way in which he does it is refreshing and accessible to a very broad audience. The structure of the book is mainly chronological (it follows more or less the findings in the field since the early 19th century), but with many fascinating digressions to theoretical and philosophical issues that provide excellent new readings of some great authors such as William James, Gustav Spiller and John Stuart Mill. Quiroga is a superb storyteller who has the intelligence to make himself invisible behind the subject that he narrates. He generously foregrounds the seminal thinking of all those, in Western as well as non-Western traditions, who preceded him in the field and proves very sensitive to the unfathomable suffering that goes along with neurological dysfunctions. Moreover, he manages to establish a real dialogue with his reader not only by seducing him or her with the rhetoric and humor of his fables and anecdotes, but also with a great sense of timing and construction. Each chapter discloses a new dimension of a universe that never becomes a labyrinth of concepts and research hypotheses. [End Page 508] Throughout the book the reader is invited to "play" with the author, who is a master in combining verbal and visual information and who helps the reader take a wonderful journey through the human mind.