A brilliant software developer, Josie, creates a program to record and archive everything we do and say. A 19th-century scholar discovers a treasure trove of ancient documents in a Cairo “genizah,” or synagogue’s repository for holy items that cannot be discarded. The narratives in Dara Horn’s new novel intersect when Josie is kidnapped in Egypt, raising questions about what it means to remember the past.

Guests

  • Dara Horn Author, "A Guide for the Perplexed" (W. W. Norton & Company 2013)

Transcript

  • 13:22:36

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. In the not-too-distant future a brilliant software developer named Josie Ashkonozy (sp?) has made a fortune with a program called Genizah. Genizah instructs your devices to record and catalog everything you do and say, an archive of your entire life, searchable and accessible from anywhere. The term genizah refers to the place in synagogues where documents are kept that cannot be discarded because they contain the name of God.

  • 13:23:06

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis novel also takes us to Victorian England where we meet a Cambridge scholar who learns about a trove of ancient documents being sold off piecemeal from a synagogue in Cairo. He sets out to find them and bring them back to England. Joining us to discuss how this all came together in the novel and in her head is Dara Horn. She is the author of four novels. The latest is called "A Guide for the Perplexed." Dara Horn, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:23:32

    MS. DARA HORNThanks for having me.

  • 13:23:33

    NNAMDIIf you have comments or questions for Dara Horn, call us at 800-433-8850. How much of your life is recorded now in pictures, Tweets, Facebook posts and emails, 800-433-8850? This novel takes place in the near future as well as the ancient past. To say it's ambitious might be an understatement. Can you give us a sense of the novel's trajectory?

  • 13:23:55

    HORNSure. Well, the main story, as you mentioned, is about a software developer, a woman named Josie Ashkonozy who creates this software platform, as you said, that records everything its users do, catalogs it according to their instincts and then uses the trajectories to predict the user's future. She becomes very successful with this but she has a sister who's not so successful. And at one point her sister persuades her to take on a consulting gig at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, which actually does exist. You may remember it from fifth grade social studies, but it actually was rebuilt about ten years ago as a $200 million complex.

  • 13:24:32

    HORNSo she -- her sister preys on her vanity, convinces her to go. She goes to Egypt where she is then kidnapped during Egypt's post-revolutionary chaos.

  • 13:24:41

    NNAMDINot a bad deal for her sister, but that's another story.

  • 13:24:43

    HORNYes, that's true. And I should mention that this contemporary plot is actually partly a rewriting of the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, but set in contemporary times and with women instead of men. So that's the contemporary plot. There's also a historical plot about the discovery of the Cairo genizah, which a genizah, as you mentioned, is a -- literally means a hiding place. It's a repository of documents, books, things that can't be used anymore because they've been damaged but can't be thrown away because they have God's name written on them. This is part of a Jewish tradition.

  • 13:25:15

    HORNBut there was a synagogue in Cairo that was built in the 900s and had one of these rooms where they used as a repository for damaged books and documents. In that community they had the custom not just to preserving anything that had God's name on it, but anything that was written in Hebrew letters. And so as a -- and also they had not bothered to clean out this room in 900 years. So when Solomon Schekter (sp?) , this Cambridge professor came to Egypt and discovered this trove of documents, he discovered 140,000 documents going back to the middle ages. It was really like a collection of all of this community's life.

  • 13:25:54

    HORNAnd to me this was fascinating because this, in a way, was -- it's not an archive. It was really just a dumping ground. And because it was not just -- it was not only books and sacred writings, it was things like...

  • 13:26:05

    NNAMDI...grocery lists.

  • 13:26:06

    HORNYes, sales receipts, love letters, children's workbooks, you know, things that -- garbage. And, you know, to me the -- when I read about this it was -- it's not an archive. What it really is is the medieval Facebook.

  • 13:26:18

    NNAMDII was about to say it's today's Facebook pages.

  • 13:26:20

    HORNExactly. I mean, it's, you know, so full of such mundane junk that you really could recreate an entire world from it except that of course it's taken them 100 years to catalog the whole thing. So it was looking at that and thinking about how we preserved -- you know, what we save, why we save it and what our motivations are for preserving our lives and what the implications are that got me started in writing this story.

  • 13:26:42

    NNAMDIAnd in case you're just joining this conversation, it's one with Dara Horn. She is the author of four novels. Her latest is called "A Guide for the Perplexed." Would you use a program like Genizah that records and archives your entire life, 800-433-8850? Speaking of Genizah, let's hear a little bit more about the program, if you can read from the first chapter for us.

  • 13:27:03

    HORNSure. In its earliest versions, the program Josie invented was little more than a variant on dozens of others. But then the software grew, unfolding before her like a prophetic dream. By the time she was 24 years old, Genizah was a vast platform, password protected and accessible from anywhere that saved not only material that its users deliberately created, but essentially everything else they did too. Running recording components on devices the users already owned and then employing natural language processing and facial recognition to catalog worlds of data according to the user's habits, which the software learned from the users themselves.

  • 13:27:42

    HORNBy the time she was 26 Genizah did merely store data, but tracked it, showing past trajectories and using them to predict the user's future. By the time she was 27 she had married the company's chief engineer, had been the subject of a nationally televised documentary and had a baby. By the time she was 33, her six-year-old daughter Tully's (sp?) every moment was recorded forever. But Tully knew nothing about it until one morning when almost by accident Josie showed her the archive of her life.

  • 13:28:13

    HORNAnd then there's a scene where the six-year-old discovers that her mother has been recording everything about her life since she was born. And her daughter says to her, is everything from when you were little in there too, Tully asked? No, actually, Josie admitted. I hadn't invented it yet then. Lucky you, Tully said. Josie paused. Lucky, why? Because you get to remember everything the way you want instead of how it really happened.

  • 13:28:42

    NNAMDIAnd that is essentially what this book and this Genizah at the center of it is all about. One interesting aspect of the program that Josie creates is the idea of not just saving but archiving everything that we record. Can you describe how that works, how someone accesses the information about their life?

  • 13:29:05

    HORNSure. Well, the way I imagined it -- and of course this -- when I wrote it it was fictional. I feel like every day it becomes closer and closer to being reality. You know, when I wrote it, you know, six months ago it was more fictional than it is now. Of course now we have Google Glass and all these things. But it essentially -- it records everything that's going on around you through camera components on your phone, on tablets, on, you know, devices that you carry with you.

  • 13:29:28

    HORNAnd then as it records all these things you can then find -- you can search for them based on facial recognition, based on language. So with her daughter, for example, her daughter says, oh I can't find my shoes. I don't know where I put them yesterday. She just types in shoes and then her picture of her daughter's shoes on the floor of the car suddenly pops up on the screen. You know, in that sense it's a little bit of a fantasy. But I think also what's amazing is that she can say shoes -- you know, first shoes and then find her daughter's first shoes, the first shoes she wore when she was a year old.

  • 13:29:59

    NNAMDIFantasy. I can see listeners right now talking about developing that app because it's something that they feel they can use. Your book may not be futuristic at all in another six months.

  • 13:30:08

    HORNNo. It already isn't probably.

  • 13:30:11

    NNAMDIYou point out that by saving everything, it means in some ways saving nothing. Can you explain?

  • 13:30:18

    HORNSure. Well, I first started thinking about this and had the idea for writing this book in the past couple of years with the explosion of social media and also the explosion with digital cameras and, you know, cameras on your phone and things like that where it really suddenly became possible, in a sense, to record everything. Since I was a child I've had a kind of fantasy of turning life into an archive of recording everything so nothing could ever be lost. I was one of these people who's keeping diaries and things like that.

  • 13:30:47

    HORNAnd of course, now social media has made my dream come true. And this turned it into a total nightmare where every idiotic thing you ever do is recorded forever. And I just thought about this a lot because even with something simple like family photos, when I was growing up my parents were often taking snapshots of me and my siblings. And, you know, today they have bookshelves full of photo albums of things we did when we were growing up. It occurs to me that when I -- if my husband and were to print up all the pictures that we have of our children, I think it would easily fill a room, which would almost be okay except that my oldest is only eight.

  • 13:31:25

    HORNSo, I mean, it's become so much that it actually would be impossible to go back and look at all those photos. You'd almost have to live another life in order to see all of it. So when I say that saving everything is kind of like saving nothing. What I mean is that what's lost, in a sense, is the art of forgetting. And what I mean by the art of forgetting is that we are at risk of turning our lives into collections of evidence rather than memories. Because memories are what you make of the things that happened in your past, the story that you choose to tell by deciding what you want to remember about your past and how you want to remember it.

  • 13:32:02

    HORNAnd it's that art of selectively remembering that turns your past into a meaningful story rather than just a collection of evidence. And I think often that the Cairo genizah, you know, that trove of documents from medieval Cairo, how these documents were -- you know, it was an entire community's life for hundreds of years, and how it's really just -- it just turned into a pile of dust. And now people are able to go back and look at it. But in a sense, no one person could go back and look at it. It's taken over 100 years just to catalog it all.

  • 13:32:31

    NNAMDIBut you raise a fascinating concept because memory, you seem to be asserting, is an important part of the human condition. And that even though on occasion we can use actual records to stir memory, if everything in fact was recorded, it would cause us to in fact lose the facility for memory. We wouldn't need it.

  • 13:32:54

    HORNYes. Well, and I can say actually this is a very old problem. One of Plato's dialogues is called "Phaedrus." And in that dialogue Socrates talks about how the invention of writing...

  • 13:33:04

    NNAMDIOh, yeah.

  • 13:33:05

    HORN...is going to damage the way people...

  • 13:33:06

    NNAMDIWe don't have to memorize these poems anymore.

  • 13:33:07

    HORNExactly. How tragic that now that with -- you know, writing is going to destroy our lives and our souls because now, you know, who's going to memorize these epic poems? Well, he was right. Nobody's going to memorize these epic poems. But it was -- it's interesting to me how similar that conversation is to the way we think about memory today. It's almost not necessary to remember anything. Already people don't know their friends' phone numbers and things like that because it isn't necessary to remember those things.

  • 13:33:29

    NNAMDII find it very disturbing. The phone number you need to remember is 800-433-8850. That's the number to call to join this conversation with Dara Horn. Her latest is called "A Guide for the Perplexed." You can also send email to kojo@wamu.org. Do you think having a record of an event in your life changes your memory of it, 800-433-8850? In the novel, Genizah is a program that people use to organize and keep their own personal records. But it's possible to imagine all that digital information being collected, well, for other purposes. Edward Snowden's NSA leaks earlier this year brought that home to you. Can you talk about that?

  • 13:34:10

    HORNAbsolutely. I mean, you know, we -- of course, as it's turned out, all of our lives are recorded by the NSA.

  • 13:34:16

    NNAMDIYes, exactly.

  • 13:34:19

    HORNRight. What's interesting to me though is why people record these things forever. I mean, the Jews of medieval Cairo had an excuse in a sense for recording everything. They viewed their language as infused with holiness. The NSA has an excuse, whether you accept it or not. You know, they feel they have a reason for doing what they do. But I wonder -- one of my questions often is, what's our reason? What's our reason for sort of Instagram-ing every moment of our lives?

  • 13:34:42

    HORNDo we have -- what do we gain from doing that? And I often think that it's a kind of a way of fighting -- it's a way of fighting mortality. You know, the Egyptian pharaohs used to keep tombs where they would -- you know, they're all -- they would preserve images and text and objects that they wanted to carry into the next world. I think we have a similar sense that if we somehow just preserve those moments that are fleeting, you know, the smiling baby who's going to grow up, you know, the person you love who may leave you or may pass away. Even, you know, the delicious dinner that's going to turn into a pile of dirty dishes.

  • 13:35:19

    HORNAll of those fleeting memories, if we're somehow able to preserve them in this unchanging way, you know, maybe that will in somehow -- it will somehow elevate our lives to this metaphysical space beyond time. And I think in a sense that's why we call it the cloud.

  • 13:35:33

    NNAMDIYeah, it probably helps to deal with alienation, too. I post, therefore I am.

  • 13:35:38

    HORNYes.

  • 13:35:39

    NNAMDIA previous novel of yours was inspired by an art theft. What inspired "A Guide for the Perplexed?"

  • 13:35:47

    HORNWell, part of it was, as I said, this explosion of social media.

  • 13:35:49

    NNAMDIThe social media.

  • 13:35:50

    HORNYes. But there are a number of other things. I was interested in -- well, first of all, I should say that part of the book takes place in post-revolutionary Egypt. And this sort of amazing confluence of events that's happened in the past couple of years has sort of brought Egypt to everyone's minds. I should say that I started writing this novel before the revolution and then I had to change my plot.

  • 13:36:10

    NNAMDIYou're kidding.

  • 13:36:11

    HORNNo, I'm really not. And you talked about -- before about nefarious purposes, about nefarious purposes for recording everything. I should mention that in the contemporary story, the software developer who...

  • 13:36:23

    NNAMDIJosie.

  • 13:36:23

    HORNYes, Josie Ashkonozy who's created this Genizah program, she goes to Egypt to work at the Library of Alexandria. And when she's kidnapped, she's kidnapped for money. Her kidnapper's not realizing that people who have software startups don't actually have cash. And when they realize that they're going to kill her. But then -- and this is a little bit of a plot spoiler but hopefully not too much of one -- they discover that -- they realize that the Egyptian police are in fact using her software for surveillance.

  • 13:36:53

    HORNAnd so they keep her alive as a hostage to create a virus to destroy the Egyptian police's records. And so then it becomes -- she becomes kind of a software Scheherazade, you know, to -- you know, she knows that if she keeps programming then she's postponing her own execution as long as she continues programming. But I should say that the Library of Alexandria where part of this book takes place, it is a real place. And it was -- during the Egyptian revolution a lot of places like that were looted. But the people of the City of Alexandria actually surrounded the library in a human chain to protect it from looters.

  • 13:37:30

    HORNAnd what's amazing to me about the Library of Alexandria is that it actually contains the only backup in the world of the internet archive, which is the cache of all websites ever created. So this is something that I guess people in Egypt have been doing for a long time is, you know, sort of like how the pharaohs always had to be buried with their organs perfectly preserved. They don't believe you can't take it with you.

  • 13:37:52

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Don in Bethesda who writes, "I agree with the author. I feel we're recording too much of our lives. Some people take pictures of every meal they eat and post trivial events from their day. Perhaps it will be interesting to future historians but do we really need to be using energy and resources to save these kinds of things?" As we have said, Dara, thanks to digital technology we are now recording so much of our lives in various ways, pictures, Tweets, emails, Facebook, are we that far from something like Genizah?

  • 13:38:22

    HORNWell, I think the example of the medieval genizah is in some ways comforting because it shows that in the past this was happening too. I mean, that was have all this garbage from the middle ages, the same way we have all this garbage now. And as your reader points out, maybe someday it will be interesting for historians, if of course the data lasts that long. But one of the important themes of the book is the way that this digital recording can affect the way a person sees their own self in their own life.

  • 13:38:51

    HORNI'm 36 years old and so that means that I'm old enough that my entire life is not recorded online. But I do feel -- in a sense I feel sorry for people younger than me who in a sense will never have a chance to meet a stranger. They'll never have that opportunity to invent themselves for someone who has never met them before in a way that even someone who's -- as I said, I'm 36. I'm not that old but even...

  • 13:39:14

    NNAMDIYou've already acquired a lot more photographs than your parents did during your entire life.

  • 13:39:17

    HORNOf course. Absolutely. And my children of course have. So that's -- you know, so that idea that you will never be able to reinvent yourself is interesting to me. And in the novel, this becomes a very important part of the plot, as the novel is partly about this rivalry between these two sisters who have very different memories of their own past. And they -- and very different attitudes about how to move forward with that with those memories.

  • 13:39:40

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Let's go to Alex in Washington, D.C. Alex, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:39:46

    ALEXHi, Kojo. This is an interesting topic. What came to mind was many, many -- well, 20, 30 years ago, I was working in a home of an elderly person. And she had this big framed set of photographs tracing her life from childhood through marriage and World War II and the children and all that to the point where they -- she and her husband, they're very aged. And at this time, they had already passed on. And I was thinking, I was -- I felt sad to see a whole life encapsulated like that.

  • 13:40:18

    ALEXAnd I think part of it is because when you have the photograph of the person, you can never really let go. They're always kind of with you, and the sadness is always with you. Two hundred years ago they didn't have photographs, so when somebody died, you felt bad for a while and then it was gone.

  • 13:40:35

    NNAMDIBecause that person...

  • 13:40:35

    ALEXYou sort of forgot about the person. But if had a photograph there all the time like some people do have photos of their parents, their deceased parents, I have to believe it's difficult to do.

  • 13:40:46

    NNAMDIMemory, says Alex, apparently is better than reality.

  • 13:40:51

    HORNWell, I think that memory is personal in a way that reality is not in that you are interpreting your own life. When that woman you mentioned, Alex, has her photographs of her life, and as you said, there's something sad about it in that it's so -- to you it feels restricted. In the sense that restriction is perhaps -- and I can't speak for her, I don't know her, of course, but in the sense that restriction is what gives her life meaning because she's able in a sense to curate her life the way a museum curator would select from certain paintings that they have in order to create a meaningful story.

  • 13:41:24

    HORNAnd in a sense, there wouldn't be a meaningful story unless you were making those kinds of selections. That's what the character in my book realizes at point is that, you know, her idea of preserving everything is a way to stop time is in a sense a failure because we don't time to stop. But what we want -- but we want to mean something. And the way it means something is by creating a story out of it, and that story can only be created by the choices that we make.

  • 13:41:47

    HORNPart of the book is about this question of fade and free will, how much of our lives we can control and how much is controlled -- is subject to circumstances beyond our control. And one of the things that ultimately emerges in the book is that idea that we can't control the future, but in a sense we can control the past, and...

  • 13:42:04

    ALEXWell, and that's part of the problem, I think, because the more we can see the past there represented in photographs, the more we tend to stay stuck in the past it seems to me, as opposed to in the days before photographs, 2, 300 years ago, they didn't dwell in the past hardly at all because it was gone, and we -- and they spent their time in the present and looking forward to the future.

  • 13:42:29

    NNAMDIDara Horn, care to respond?

  • 13:42:31

    HORNYes. Sure. I think -- I would -- I think that we often assume, you know, we have to remember that everyone always thinks they're living on the cutting edge of science and the cutting edge of technology, so hundreds of years ago people didn't think, well, you know, if only I had a photograph, I would remember this person. I think they thought, well, I have a painting, or I have a letter, you know, or I have the story that my father told me about my grandfather, and that story or that letter or that painting becomes the thing that they remember and that won't go away.

  • 13:42:55

    HORNSo I think there always is some kind of -- as long as there's communication between people, I think they're always going back in history as a way of creating that story that, you know, may or may not because a fossilized version of the past.

  • 13:43:06

    NNAMDIAlex, thank you very much for your call. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll return to your calls at 800-433-8850. Should we be collecting and saving everything -- well, because we can? 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:45:01

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest if Dara Horn. She is the author of four novels. We are discussing her latest. It's called "A Guide for the Perplexed." We got an email from Katherine in Springfield, VA, who said, "I saved everything for years. In 1999 I did a grand clear out and organization. In the process, I found the receipt for the blue suede clogs that I bought in 1979. I kept everything for posterity. I finally figured out that posterity didn't want it."

  • 13:45:31

    NNAMDIAnd then we got an email from Joanna who says, "I find the concept of an archive of our entire lives to be fascinating. I wish I had videos and photos of my mother who is no longer with us." So you see, there are some people who are ready for genizah at this point. And then, this email we got from Ellen in Alexandria. "Memory is selective and psychologists say that it's crucial. We remember and forget things in a certain way for a reason, often to protect ourselves from things that can hurt us."

  • 13:46:00

    NNAMDIAnd that was one of the points you were making earlier. You've said that having perfect memory precludes forgiving.

  • 13:46:07

    HORNYes.

  • 13:46:07

    NNAMDICan you talk about how your novel draws on the story of Joseph in the Bible?

  • 13:46:11

    HORNSure. Yes. As I mentioned, "Guide for the Perplexed" is partly at least a rewriting of the Joseph story from the Bible in contemporary times and with women instead of men. The Joseph story, for those who may not know, it's about a young man whose brothers are intensely jealous of him. They end of selling him into slavery in Egypt. Through a complicated series of scenarios, he ends of being in charge of a rationing program in Egypt during a famine. His brothers end up coming down to Egypt to buy food from him. He reveals himself to them.

  • 13:46:42

    HORNAt that point where he reveals himself to them, the verse in the Bible says what he says to them, and you can imagine what you might want to say to people who, you know, your brothers who wronged you and you've been living with this wrong for 20 years. What he says to them is, "Do not be angry at yourselves that you sold me to this place, because it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you." I think that's an amazing revision of the past.

  • 13:47:06

    NNAMDIExactly.

  • 13:47:07

    HORNI mean, you know, could he have, you know, partly it's -- there's of course a religious idea that he has this view of God's plan for his family and for the world, but if you think about what that means, is that he's actually recasting his brothers' heinous crime into a benevolent act of God. I mean, that is an amazing revision of family history. And in a sense you sort of wonder, well, why would he say that, and I think that the reason that he says that in a sense is because there's no other way for this family to move forward without reimaging the past in a radically different way than the way it really happened.

  • 13:47:43

    NNAMDIHad he remembered it or recorded it the way it actually happened, there would have been no room for forgiveness.

  • 13:47:49

    HORNAbsolutely not.

  • 13:47:49

    NNAMDINot in that scenario.

  • 13:47:51

    HORNYes.

  • 13:47:51

    NNAMDIWe move on now to Angela in Manassas, Va. Angela, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:47:57

    ANGELAI wanted to say that my husband is from rural Turkey and from a very poor family, and from his entire childhood he might five or ten pictures. But when you ask his family, oh, what about that wedding, they remember everything in such detail. The fabric and how it felt and what the air was like, what the food tasted like, every single detail. And I think it's because they knew weren't going to have those photographs to be able to look back at, and so they paid attention.

  • 13:48:25

    ANGELAWe have our own five children now, and my husband is the one who has the camera out from the moment we leave the door until the moment we come home, and I'm the one who's let's take one picture in front of Mount Vernon, and then let's go inside and let's experience and enjoy this place. Let's look at everything. Instead of taking so many photographs, let's make memories.

  • 13:48:44

    NNAMDIAre you concerned that your children's memories won't be as vivid as your husband's families?

  • 13:48:49

    ANGELAI've already seen it. I mean, we say, you know, oh, do you remember last year when we went to Shenandoah Park, and they're like, oh, yeah, we walked on a long trail and it was nice, but they don't say the trees were 15 different colors of orange and red and the beauty that they saw. They miss that.

  • 13:49:04

    NNAMDIHey, they've got pictures.

  • 13:49:05

    ANGELAAbsolutely. They can go back and look at the pictures. They don't have to pay attention to the details.

  • 13:49:08

    NNAMDIPlease allow me to have Dara Horn respond.

  • 13:49:10

    HORNSure. I'm with you, actually. I have four children, and it's exactly the same. My husband's taking pictures, and I would rather not take so many, but on the other hand, I'm grateful that he does, and I feel fortunate to be able to have that to look back on. I do think that there's a sense where we invest the technology with our memories, and I think that that’s true since ancient times when people were concerned that writing was going to destroy memory.

  • 13:49:34

    HORNThey were right. Writing does destroy memory in a sense, or it destroys what you need to remember. But in a sense it also -- but I think in a sense you're also curating things -- even when you're taking pictures all the time, there's still curating that's going on. There's still choice you're making about what to remember. Even in your thousands of photographs from the weekend, you probably don't have photos of when your son hit your daughter and then your daughter burst into tears. You might, but you probably don't.

  • 13:50:01

    HORNYou know, those are the photos that we don't take. And there still is -- and there's a sense -- in the novel I have this moment where she -- where Josie Ashkenazi, when she's -- the woman who's created this software, and she's put -- and when she's taken hostage she has sort of the first time in her life since she was a child that she was away from a screen, you know, for more than -- for more than an hour or two, and she sort of undergoes this shock where she's trying to remember her child and in a sense she almost can't.

  • 13:50:24

    HORNAnd then she starts having these memories of her child, and the memories that she has of her child, she starts realizing that they're very different from the memories she had recorded. She remembers arguments she had with her child. She remembers when the child got upset about something. She remembers all the negative things that she had no reason to record because in a sense, even when you're taking pictures all the time, you're not saving. You're always being selective about what you remember.

  • 13:50:45

    NNAMDIAngela, thank you very much for your call. I'd like to move on to Jamie who is in Reisterstown, Md. Jamie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please, Jamie.

  • 13:50:54

    JAMIEHi, thanks for letting me call in. I have two observations I guess. I'm actually a professional historian, so I deal in evidence from the past all the time. And even though people record many things, and I work on 17th century England, and there are some cases of people taking journals and recording much of their lives, it still has to be interpreted, and it still at different times would be read in with different inflections and views. And so even though we think we're recording evidence, it's not always as objective or clear as we think.

  • 13:51:25

    JAMIEBut the second thing I wanted to say is, I think the bigger issue is not memory, but being present. I don't remember what the trees look like on my walk because I wasn't paying attention enough and wasn't present enough. I think we're constantly on our phones and computers and being distracted by technology and other things in our lives that we just don't even pay attention in the same way that people used to be, not just remember it, but we don't even record it in the first place. And so I think that's actually the bigger issue to talk about.

  • 13:51:56

    NNAMDIDara Horn?

  • 13:51:57

    HORNSure. I agree with you. I think that a sense of being present is something that is always in danger, and I agree that it's in more danger now than it was in the past. With the technology that's in your pocket you no longer even have to be at your desk or at work to be distracted with this technology. And I do think that that's in a sense a danger. But on the other hand I think that there's -- there are positive things about this as well.

  • 13:52:22

    NNAMDIIt brings you new experiences.

  • 13:52:23

    HORNYes. Well, there's suddenly you may not be present on your walk, but in a sense you can see what it would be like to walking down the street in, you know, in another country where you may never travel to. So there is a trade off there. But I think that -- in my novel, there is this ultimate sense that being present is what matters, and it expresses itself in the story with this -- when this woman is taken hostage, her sister essentially moves in and in a lot of ways takes over her life, and especially in taking care of her child.

  • 13:52:49

    HORNAnd her sister ends up being much more present for that child than she ever was because she was always very distracted her company and with her work. And I think that that's something that, you know, that lack of presence is something you very much notice when you're with children, because children are always living in the present -- very young children are always living in the present tense. They don't have a past. They don't know about their future.

  • 13:53:08

    HORNThey're not making plans. And so they are always grabbing at that moment and it takes -- I think it takes a special kind of adult to be able to appreciate being in that present moment with someone who is going to be present there with you.

  • 13:53:23

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jamie. We move on now to Dave in Annapolis, Md. Dave, your turn.

  • 13:53:29

    DAVEYes. Thank you for taking my call, Kojo.

  • 13:53:32

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 13:53:54

    DAVEI would like to just -- I'd like to say all of my kids are on Facebook and they share everything. My wife and I are not, and I have lost my first wife about 23 years ago, and I had three daughters at that time, ages nine through 14. And I still have Super 8 videos of their mother that I have not yet shared with them, and I'm not sure that I ever will share them because I think it could be very painful for them.

  • 13:54:07

    NNAMDIWhy is that your assumption?

  • 13:54:09

    DAVEI'm sorry?

  • 13:54:10

    NNAMDIWhy do you assume it will be very painful? There are some people who would say, no, it might bring back fond memories.

  • 13:54:17

    DAVEOh, I know. You're absolutely right, Kojo, but I have wrestled with this for years. I've wrestled with whether or not to have them put on DVDs that each of the girls could have one, and I just -- I haven't been able to bring myself to do it yet.

  • 13:54:32

    NNAMDIWell, actually, Dara Horn has spent a lot more time than I have thinking about this memory stuff, so I'll have her respond.

  • 13:54:37

    HORNWell, you know, perhaps not in such a visceral way, but I think that, you know, I wonder -- and, you know, of course I don't know your situation, but I wonder if part of the fear is in a sense not -- is to -- is it that then your late wife becomes only the person who's in that movie, because that becomes the only visual, you know, or that visual in a way kind of will override, you know, the memories that your daughters might have of her from their own life and from what they remember.

  • 13:55:10

    HORNYou know, and of course I don't know how young they were when she died, but I think that -- I wonder if that's part of the fear, because I do know that it often happens that when you experience an event and then you go and look at photos of the event, in a sense you end up remembering the photos better than you remember the way you saw it yourself. There's kind of this doubling of memory that goes into the recording of memory, and that's of course something that's -- that's sort of something that's been true ever since people learned how to write.

  • 13:55:35

    HORNThat there's always this risk of the representation of the reality taking over the reality itself. And it's a danger, but it's also -- and it's also a gift because without that you only have a memory that can last for the one person, you know, for the person who's life it was, or for the people who knew that person well. But once it's recorded in some way, even if it's just -- even if it's something small, that's something that can be passed on beyond your life and beyond your wife's life. And so in a sense I think that is a gift, and while it may be emotionally difficult, I would imagine that it would something that your daughters might be grateful for someday.

  • 13:56:13

    NNAMDIDave, thank you very much for your call, and of course, the call finally is yours. Can you talk a little bit out the title of your novel, what it refers to and why you chose to make it a central theme of this book?

  • 13:56:23

    HORNSure. The novel is called "A Guide for the Perplexed," and this is -- I took the title from a book by a 12th century philosopher named Moses Maimonides. This was a Egyptian Jewish philosopher. He was also a scientist and a rationalist. He actually was the physician for the Egyptian Sultan in the 1100s, and his book, "A Guide for the Perplexed," is a very famous philosophic work that's really about the reconciliation of faith and reason.

  • 13:56:52

    HORNIt's about how it may be possible to believe in God and believing in modern science, which of course modern science in the 12th century, but modern science at the same time. And what's fascinating to me is that he was -- medieval Cairo, at the time when Maimonides lived there, this was the tech capital of the world. It was on the cutting edge of science. It was the global crossroads of trade. This was the cutting edge of science and technology at that time.

  • 13:57:17

    HORNAnd in his book he asks the question that we still ask today, which is -- and it's really not -- it's not even really a religious question, it's really just a human question. It's that question of free will versus fate. How much of our lives is within our control, and how much of our lives is something that's beyond our control? And this used to be a religious question because it used to be about, you know, whether God was preordaining our lives, but in a sense, it's now a rational scientific question because we still have this idea that we're predestined in some way by genetics, or by brain chemistry or hormones, or any number of physical sources.

  • 13:57:52

    NNAMDIWhat was a religious discussion has now become a secular discussion. Unfortunately, we're out of time in this discussion even though I would like it to continue for much longer than this. Dara Horn, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:03

    HORNThank you for having me.

  • 13:58:05

    NNAMDIDara Horn is the author of four novels. Her latest is called "A Guide for the Perplexed." And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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Friday, Nov 21 2014Sorting political fact from fiction, and having fun while we're at it. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.