Does a history of ‘memory’ even have a proper subject matter? After all, anything may be said to contain memories if it can be used to access information about something else by virtue of having a means of registering some prior contact. Even if we confine ourselves to psychology, the meaning of ‘memory’ is not rendered much more manageable. In this context, the word points to a range of accounts – in equal measure intriguing and unsubstantiated – of the mind’s self-organising powers, which differ over matters of capacity, process, reliability and conscious control. Alison Winter has written a set of readable vignettes that makes these issues compelling without doing much to resolve them.
Winter begins with Hugo Münsterberg, America’s first celebrity psychologist. When William James invited Münsterberg, a graduate of Germany’s premier experimental psychology lab, to organise something similar at Harvard in 1892, he got more than