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When a Memory Palace Goes Wrong

Have you ever heard of the Memory Palace? It’s a memory trick to help you remember lists of things or whatever. Here is how it works: first you imagine a place you know well and then associate everything on the list with some place in the memory palace. Then you just walk through the house, mentally, and remember everything on the list.

Like this, but with memory. [*]

Like this, but with memory. [*]

I’ve never tried it before, but it sounds promising, so here goes. I don’t have a palace, so I’m going to the house I grew up in, which is in Grand Falls, Newfoundland. I can picture it perfectly.

Here’s a typical grocery list for us:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Bread
  • Swiss cheese
  • Sandwich meat (ham, turkey)
  • Orange juice
  • Paper towels

Now, I have to run through this before I go to the store, so I can make sure I remember everything. Try it with me. Are you ready?

~*~

I walk into the front door and my sock goes squish in a bowl of lukewarm dairy.

“Who left a bowl of milk on the welcome mat?” I shout. And why aren’t I wearing shoes? I don’t add. That’s not the sort of thing you think of when you walk into a memory palace.

My sister Anna walks in from the kitchen. “Oh, I left that for a stray cat I befriended. I named him Caterwaul.”

“Mom’s allergic to cats!” I shout, suddenly irrationally angry. “And you never knew Caterwaul while we were living in Newfoundland.”

Anna rolls her eyes. “Hey, this isn’t my memory palace.”

I have to continue. I’m leaving for the grocery store in twenty minutes and I have to memorize this list. I walk into the hallway and see a dozen eggs lying on the old-fashioned hot water radiator. They’re all different colors and one of them is growing and sprouting legs. I peer at it closer and closer until it suddenly screams in my face and jumps off the radiator, doing a double back flip.

These are great for warming up your coat before going outside on a winter day. And, apparently, for making mutant eggs.

These are great for warming up your coat before going outside on a winter day. And, apparently, for making mutant eggs. [*]

“Aha!” it yells and starts to fling slice after slice of bread at me. A whole loaf, in fact, while screaming unintelligible words.

“What are you saying?” I ask.

“Russian curse words.”

“I don’t want to buy Russian bread!”

The egg rolls its eyes. “Crybaby,” it mutters. It tries to walk away but steps in a piece of Swiss cheese that is lying in the hall. Its foot gets stuck in a hole and it topples over and rolls slowly away. Its eyes glare at me with every rotation.

I walk into the living room. The TV is having a heated shouting match with the armchair. “You’re a turkey!” the TV shouts.

“What a ham!” the armchair counters.

“You’re a turkey!”

“What a ham!”

“Come over here and say that, butterball!” the TV bellows. “I’ll cut you! I’ll slice you thin and serve you with cranberries.”

“I’d like to see you try it. I’ll smoke you in hickory, you fat swinehock!”

What a ham. [*]

What a ham. [*]

I leave them to their argument and walk into the dining room where horror greets me. The table is the site of citric surgery. An orange is lying there, its peel laid open and my older sister Sheila cutting into its flesh with a scalpel.

“No pulp,” she whispers. “No pulp.” Juice covers everything. She looks up suddenly and smiles, then reaches for some paper towel to wipe her hands. “We’re almost out of these.”

“What are you doing?” I practically shout.

She looks at me like I’m crazy. “Nothing.” Then she smiles again. “Want some orange juice?”

~*~

Epilogue: I made it to the store and remembered everything I needed to buy. However, I did accidentally swear at the cashier in Russian and fell down in a fetal position when I got to the juice aisle. My conclusion: the memory palace technique works if you think you are strong enough to handle it.


Confession: I’m a Serial Hater

How’s that for a glib, yet cryptic title? Let me explain a little more.

I walk into a used bookstore, which like most bibliophiles, is similar to walking into an opium den. Oh sure, you tell the people waiting in the car that you’re just running in for a moment, but they know better and wander off for some coffee, or a tour in the Peace Corps. Meanwhile, I wander through the dim shelves, looking for a stack of yellowing, dog-earred volumes to trade some hard-earned lucre for. I go to fantasy/sci-fi and start pulling books out. Hmm, this one looks interesting. Interesting title, nice cover art. I glance down at the bottom of the cover. Book 1 of

That’s it. Deal-breaker.

I’m not going to say it’s a hard and fast rule, but I must confess that I am deeply biased against novel series. I’ll call it a prejudice since then I don’t have to justify it. Of course, in the above scenario of the used bookstore, the much more frustrating situation is finding Book 4 of– with no sight of Book 3, 2, or 1 anywhere. That’s not the writer’s fault, but here are some other grievances I have with book series.

Most of our books. I'm sure some of them are series.

Most of our books. I’m sure some of them are series.

1. The series never finishes.

This doesn’t happen much, but every now and then, the volumes keep coming and coming, introducing more and more plots and characters and not wrapping up enough of the old ones. This was my complaint with Wheel of Time. Hopefully, this won’t be the case with the Game of Thrones books but that is also one reason I will probably never read them.

2. The first book really isn’t that good.

Let me clarify for a moment. I don’t have any problem with book series that all take place in the same world, but are separate stories, even if they are loosely related to each other. That’s fine. Books like the Discworld novels and the Chronicles of Narnia are series but they are also standalone novels, for the most part. My problem is with series that are all one single story. If the first book isn’t that good, I feel torn between giving up and never finding out the ending, and shelling out more money just to know what happened. It’s like selling me the first quarter of a novel, and unlike Jimmy Norman, the master behind Dysfunctional Literacy, I finish books. It’s a compulsion with me, even if I don’t like them (even this compulsion is more of an ideal; there are plenty of books I never finish).

3. You get the feeling the writer is only continuing the series for money.

I don’t have any specific examples of this, but I’m sure you’ve read them. There are still things that happen, conflicts occur, characters do things, but the books start to lose some of the driving force of the first one. It’s not necessarily bad writing, but you get the feeling that it’s also not really necessary.

4. The series is an artificial construct.

This is a publishing trick more than a writing one. Korea is especially bad at it, for some reason. I have the Lord of the Rings in four languages and the Korean one was by far the most expensive. That’s because while the other languages sell it in three books, the Korean version has seven volumes, meaning it’s 7/3’s more expensive. It is technically 6 books in one (plus the appendices) but there’s no point in selling it that way, except for money.

When I was young, I bought a middle grade fantasy series called Winds of Light. It had six volumes, even though each was only 130 pages or so. That was fine, except about six months after I bought the whole series, they came out with a single volume edition for about a third of the price of all six volumes. Maybe that was when my series hatred started.  Maybe I should go see a literary psychologist.

(Note: just to preemptively point out my hypocrisy, I am planning to write a novel series in about ten years or so. I only mention it now since everything online is eternal and I just know someone will dig up this post in 15 years when my serial novels are on the bestseller list. I just like to be prepared.)

Okay, I’ve ranted enough. How do you feel about serial novels? Let me know in the comments. (If, by the way, you write serial novels for a living, feel free to curse me out or send me a free sample of your books to try to sway my mind on the matter.)


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