“The necessity of memory to the acquisition of knowledge is inevitably felt and universally allowed, so that scarcely any other of the mental faculties are commonly considered as necessary to a student: he that admires the proficiency of another, always attributes it to the happiness of his memory; and he that laments his own defects, concludes with a wish that his memory was better.”
The fault is not in capacity. My Uncle Kenneth once referred to an ample-figured woman as “ten pounds of sausage in a five-pound casing.” The metaphor doesn’t work for memory. In my experience, its capacity is elastic and possibly infinite, especially when we are young. That’s the only way I could have memorized so much Longfellow and Eliot, not to mention commercial jingles, sit-com theme songs, Latin verbs and much of the Burl Ives songbook. Strangely, and contrary to much modern thinking, Johnson disapproves of marginalia and the copying of favorite passages. His own memory was legendary, of course, and perhaps its prodigality blinded him to the capacities of lesser mortals. He continues:
“If the mind is employed on the past or future, the book will be held before the eyes in vain. What is read with delight is commonly retained, because pleasure always secures attention; but the books which are consulted by occasional necessity, and perused with impatience, seldom leave any traces on the mind.”
Common sense commonly disregarded.