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Lesson 5: Passage memorization

So far we’ve learned how to memorize little packets of information, such as numbers, names, and other facts.

But what about long texts? Quotes, poems, and scripts?

Today we’ll learn how to apply both exclusivity and mnemonics to passages of text. It’s actually much easier than you might think, as long as you use memorable images and focus on the most important words instead of trying to memorize everything equally.

Key words: The power of exclusivity

Some memorizers think that in order to remember something word-perfect, they have to put focused memorization effort into every. single. individual. word.

But that’s simply not true. Throughout history, people have always memorized proverbs, poems, and parables simply by repeating them several times. It’s natural and it works.

Of course, we can make it work much better using mnemonics. But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that humans do indeed have a strong natural ability to remember things by using the beautifully-combined audio and kinesthetic act of saying something out loud.

So when we apply mnemonics to passages of text, we’ll apply the images to as few elements as possible: Just the most essential key words. Everything else will come easily based on those key words.

Remember the “trigger” concept that we discussed in lesson 2, when we talked about remembering names? That’s what key words are about.

For example, let’s check out this quote by Oscar Wilde:

“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

That’s a 19-word quote. All the phrases are short and memorable; however, the difficult thing is remembering it all quickly, in order, under pressure. Even if you’ve said the quote a few times, it’s easy to jumble it up.

However, if you could remember just these 4 words in order:

– other

– opinions

– mimicry

– quotation

…it suddenly becomes very easy to remember the whole quote from beginning to end. If you’ve said the quote a few times, then these key word prompts become easy triggers to say the whole thing.

And the best part is that you can, indeed, say it all word-perfect! Even if you’ve only “memorized” four words, the effort of memorizing those four words, combined with saying all 19 words a few times, turns into flawless word-for-word memorization.

Guided exercise: Memorize Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18

To demonstrate and get a little practice, let’s memorize one of Shakespeare’s most popular sonnets, the one that starts with “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

You should create your own memory palace for this. Please do it actively throughout the exercise; don’t put it off for later. Because if you simply read through the exercise without actually doing it, that’s lazy and doesn’t really teach you what you think it’s teaching you. Remember that the best learning is active learning. If you make it a point to create this palace, you’ll be truly internalizing these skills.

This poem is 14 lines long, and we’ll be choosing 2 key words from each line. Go ahead and choose a memory palace with 7 separate areas. I recommend simply using the room that you’re in right now: Look around from left to right, and choose 7 different furniture items and/or other prominent features of the room.

We won’t memorize the poem in order. Instead, we’ll memorize various lines throughout the poem, and it will all come together in the end because of the memory palace.

We’ll start with the very last of the 7 “stations”. For me it’s a coffee table to my right, covered with Christmas decor. We’ll store two different lines in this station, and each line has two key words, so you need to divide the station into sublocations.

We’re storing lines 13 and 14 in this station. Here are the keywords and the objects I recommend using:

Line 13: “breathe”, “eyes” (a lung breathing; a glass eye)

Line 14: “this”, “life” (an envelope; the envelope starting to beat like a heart)

The funny thing about this sonnet is that the word “this” in line 14 is referring to the poem itself! Shakespeare is writing to a beloved, and he’s saying that she’ll stay alive as long as the poem lives, which he smugly thinks is forever. (To be fair, so far the poem has been around for about 400 years going strong.)

Make sure your images are strong. For me, the lung is stretched between a Christmas ornament and a small clock, and the glass eye is on the drum of a nutcracker. The heart-beating envelope is between two books under the coffee table.

Now that your key words are strongly memorized, here are the lines:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Read those lines aloud two times while thinking of your images. Next, test your memorization by looking to your right and reciting the two lines from memory, just based on your mnemonics.

So far so good?

Let’s go on to the two most difficult lines, lines 7-8. Look at your 4th location (for me it’s a bookshelf). Here are the key words:

Line 7: “fair”, “declines” (a ferris wheel; a wheelchair ramp)

Line 8: “chance”, “nature’s” (dice; a bed of dead leaves)

The word “fair” is actually being used as a noun referring to the idea of a “beautiful thing/person”. He’s saying beautiful things eventually lose their beauty. So imagine the ferris wheel about to slide down a ramp and crash.

And according to Shakespeare, the two ways that things lose their beauty are either (a) by freak accident or (b) because they grow old. For him, freak accidents are “chance”, and growing old is “nature’s changing course”. So imagine both the dice and the dead leaves below the ferris wheel, there to catch it and kill it one way or another.

Here are the lines:

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;

Once again, read those two lines aloud a few times while thinking of your images. Then test yourself by saying them from memory.

Finally, test yourself on all four lines that you’ve memorized (7-8 and 13-14).

If you’ve succeeded, you’re ready to finish memorizing the poem, following the same process to memorize two lines at a time. Below I’ve supplied the key words for all 14 lines:

Line 1: “compare”, “summer’s day” (scales; sun burning very hot)

Line 2: “lovely”, “temperate” (paper heart with lace; thermometer)

Line 3: “winds”, “buds” (fan; unopened rose buds)

Line 4: “lease”, “date” (a yellow car that says “lease” on it; a calendar)

Line 5: “hot”, “heaven” (a stove burner; an eye pushing down through the sky or ceiling)

Line 6: “gold”, “dimm’d” (a gold necklace; black paint starting to cover the necklace)

Line 7: “fair”, “declines” (a ferris wheel; a wheelchair ramp)

Line 8: “chance”, “nature’s” (dice; a bed of dead leaves)

Line 9: “summer”, “fade” (a picture of grass and a sun; picture turning pale yellow)

Line 10: “possession”, “fair” (a leash; a ferris wheel)

Line 11: “death”, “shade” (the grim reaper; the shadow of his sickle)

Line 12: “lines”, “time” (Shakespeare’s pen writing lines of poetry; a pocketwatch)

Line 13: “breathe”, “eyes” (a lung breathing; a glass eye)

Line 14: “this”, “life” (Shakespeare sealing an envelope; the envelope starting to beat like a heart)

And here’s the entire sonnet itself:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

As you memorize, make sure to alternate between reading the lines of the poem and quizzing with this quiz:

Quiz: Shakespeare sonnet 18

Stop and check yourself. If you’ve successfully memorized this poem in its entirety, you’ve upgraded your memorization capabilities to an advanced status.

Bonus section: More numbers

We’re adding another digit-sound today, for the number 6. This number represents the “sh” sound, the “j” sound, or the “ch” sound. With some imagination, a 6 looks like a backwards J, or maybe you can imagine it as a G but make sure you remember that it’s the soft version (as in the word “gentle”). For me personally, I think of the number 6 as a curled up snake named “Josh”… somehow this works for me.

Anyway, here are our new numbers using this sound:

06: “sage” (the leaf of a type of herb)

16: “tissue”

26: “hinge”

36: “match”

46: “roach” (rubber toy cockroach)

56: “luge” (a type of sled)

60: “cheese”

61: “jet” (an airplane)

62: “chain”

63: “jam” (spilling out of a jar)

64: “cherry”

65: “jewel”

66: “judge” (a judge’s wig)

Here’s a quiz with the numbers from lessons 2, 4, and 5 (lessons 1 and 3 can rest for today):

Number quiz for lesson 5

Optional exercise: Using the same 7 locations that you used earlier for the Shakespeare sonnet, memorize the string of numbers below (being careful to note that one of the objects is repeated):

6260, 5646, 6036, 6664, 2661, 1606, 6365

In the next lesson, we’ll learn something incredibly practical: How to memorize the streets of a city.

Go to lesson 6: Memorizing the streets of a city