In the end, says the late literary critic and philosopher George Steiner on Of Beauty and Consolation, “we are what we remember”. Our generation has learnt that we are all “wanderers hunted on this earth”. Millions of people have been displaced from their homelands and become exiles, their possessions and way of life taken from them. But there’s one thing that couldn’t be stolen: the words they had committed to memory. In Ezekiel, God dictates a text to the prophet and then asks him to eat the scroll. The surprised prophet does as instructed, and the scroll literally becomes a part of him. Ben Jonson described the act of reading with the verb “ingest”: you eat what you read; it nourishes you like food. It becomes “fibre of your fibre, heart of your heart” and stays with you. Over time, the house of your mind becomes full of “wonderful furniture”. To be able to find inside you “the company” of what John Milton called “the master spirits” means you will always come home to a “full house”.
At the 1937 Soviet writers’ congress, Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago, faced a terrible dilemma: to speak or not to speak. This was at the height of Stalin’s purges; writers who deviated an iota from the regime’s view risked being “disappeared”. On the final day, more than six feet tall and “incredibly beautiful”, Pasternak went to the lectern. The silence, it was said, could be heard “all the way to Vladivostok”. When he finally spoke, he began with just one word: the number “30”, denoting Shakespeare’s famous sonnet. “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past…” All 2,000 people in the hall rose to their feet and recited the rest of the poem by heart. The sonnet “said everything” – you can’t touch what we hold in our heads.