At any time at all our memory may be the very key for opening opportunities we have long been seeking. You are familiar with the common story of an unknown actor’s quick rise to fame when he was able to take over the leading role the night the star suddenly fell ill. Ethel Barrymore got her first big chance when the stage manager discovered she had memorized every part in His Excellency the Governor and was ready to step into the leading lady’s shoes at once. Toscanini, the great conductor, was “discovered” the night he substituted for another conductor on the spur of the moment. He, of all the men in the orchestra, happened to know the score of the opera by heart because his eyesight was too poor to depend upon the written score, and could mount the podium without qualms. Neither Miss Barrymore nor Toscanini was born with unusual memories — they simply made use of the mental powers they had.
Likewise, one of the most remarkable memory feats in history was performed only a few years ago by a man who started with just a normal memory, Dean Roscoe Pound of the Harvard Law School.
Roscoe Pound was in England when he was asked to deliver a series of lectures on Interpretations of Legal History at Cambridge University. All the references and source material from which he could take notes were in America, two thousand miles away. The subject called for constant allusion to cases, judgments, opinions, and laws, with lengthy verbatim quotations giving the exact title, chapter, page, and even paragraph numbers of the books from which they were taken. Nevertheless, Dean Pound delivered his lectures, relying entirely upon his memory.
Later, when it was possible to check a typescript of the lecture with the material he had quoted, it was found that he had made only two errors — two wrong page numbers, due to the fact that the type in the figures was blurred!
A performance like this sounds incredible, until you discover how Pound prepared himself for his career. Like Toscanini, he was cursed — or possibly blessed — with poor eyesight. When he was still a very young man, in law school, he began to fear early blindness. In spite of strong glasses and eye exercises, the little circle of visibility on the pages of his law books grew smaller and dimmer. Ahead of him he saw only a blasted career and a tragically lonely life. Then he thought if he could make his mind substitute for his eyes — if he could remember the important points he read, he could carry his law books in his mind, and escape the constant references to the printed page that tortured his ailing eyes.
He recalled a game he used to play with his sister, when they were children. When they read together, out of the same book, the first to finish a page would recite as much as possible of what he had just read. At first they did it just for fun, keeping each other’s score, yet in a short time they had developed an amazing proficiency in remembering stories and whole books. The secret was their concentration on “getting the sense” of each page; the rest was just a matter of practice and repetition.
So when Roscoe Pound found his eyesight failing, he began to memorize his law books, becoming a living compendium of juridical knowledge. But note that even he did not attempt to remember everything he read.