Move into your memory palace.
Again, I fall behind and am trying to play catch up weeks after finishing books.
I think today people worry about their ability to remember things mostly as a test of whether they're getting old, or more precisely their brains are getting old. Why can't I remember that girl's name? How long did I live there? How old was I when we met? No one wants to lose memories from their own lives because no one else has them. As for every day things, memory isn't really that important. Phone numbers are in your phone, so are important appointments. When you don't have a phone with you, of course you can write information down (and enter it into your phone later). As for memorizing facts and trivia, other than impressing your friends, it's not necessary; it's all someplace, in a book or on a website. If you suddenly find yourself unable to remember the score of an important game played by your favorite team, you don't fear that you'll never be able to find it--that's what Google is for. However, if you find you can't remember that, you wonder what else you might not be able to remember.
The ability to remember personal history is all that counts. Memorizing because there is no other way to retain information, though, well, that went out with the introduction of writing, and even more so with the printing press. Then facts no longer risked being lost because the person who knew them forgot them or didn't pass them on to someone else; they were there for all the world to see. Memorizing just for the sake of memorizing, once thought to be the indication of a well-educated person, well, that's gone, too. Eighteenth century scholars could spend all their time memorizing long poems as an exercise for their intellect. That kind of memorizing, though, requires a serious time commitment and deep focus, two things which most 21st century people severely lack.
Unless, of course, you're a professional memorizer who does things like enter memory contests. These people are the subject of Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer. A young freelance journalist, Foer went to cover the US Memory Championship, an event I'm sure few of us have marked on our calendars (or have the dates indelibly inscribed in our memories, perhaps I should say). He met a cocky competitor who swore that by using his methods, he could teach Foer to be a memory champion himself. This was too irresistible to pass up, both for the sheer lunacy of it and no doubt for the great pitch it made to a publisher. And it paid off--Foer won the US Memory Championship and produced a charming book about his adventures learning about the art and science of memory.
I won't go into all the details about Foer's account of the history of memory, how memory works, case studies of people with overachieving and damaged memories, memorization techniques, and the extreme nerdness of the memory competitors (which is that very particular kind of nerdiness where the nerd group knows what the rest of the world thinks about them but feel that makes them even cooler because it's so clear to them that the rest of the world is wrong) because, well, I read this book over two months ago and only remember fleeting details. Foer points out that there is a difference between reading and the kind of deep concentrated reading required to really retain the information they read. I did not read this book deeply--I read it quickly and enjoyed it thoroughly.
I will take a moment to note that I was particularly interested in this topic because I have always had what is regarded as a "good" memory. Foer's research would say that there really is no such thing as some people having better memories than others; rather, it seems, I've just always naturally done some of the things that are necessary for memorizing. For example, one of the first things Foer is taught is to create a "memory palace." This means choose a place that is very familiar to you, create arresting, bizarre and indelibly memorable images for each word or thought you're trying to memorize and then place them throughout your chosen place. Then you can recall your items by walking through your memory palace and spotting the images in the order required. I've never created a memory palace but I've also never had to write out a grocery list; instead of doing that, I picture the store I'm going to, think about what I need and where they are in the store. Then I go to the store and just walk through the store as I visualized my path through the aisles. I never forget anything that way. However, I bet if I planned what I needed from a store that way, got to that store and found it closed, then tried another store I didn't know, I would forget half of what I wanted. When it comes to memorizing lines, I don't give images to the words, but I do get help by picturing the text on the page. If I'm memorizing lines and get lost in the middle of a scene, I can see in my mind the length and "shape" of the sentences and find my place again (most actors would agree that memorizing words from a page is only a light form of memorizing; you really, unforgettably learn them when you block a scene and work with the other actors). I have an odd ability to memorize numbers, but no good visual explanation for that. And if asked to memorize pi to the 33,000th place or whatever it is the memory tournament competitors do, I'd probably fail without solid study and technique. But driver's license number, credit card numbers, library card number? Yeah, I've got them.
But these skills of mine are nothing to brag about. Foer realizes at the end of his year of memorization, when he debates competing in more memorizing tournaments, that this isn't a particularly important or worthwhile thing to do. Memorization of facts, numbers, odd things, just for the sake of memorizing them is as important to modern day humans as being able to carve a really nice spear out of a branch and a stone. Sure, there is the possibility that you might need this skill if all else fails, but it's unlikely. You could lose your phone and realize you don't know anyone's number, but chances are you could find someone who will help you.
However, Foer writes that he did learn something much more important than techniques for memorization--that if you try hard enough, and have the proper techniques, you really can improve your ability to do almost anything. You may never be able to slam dunk, but if you work at it you can improve your vertical leap. You may never be a concert pianist, but you can learn to play something on the piano. With the right kind of approach, and the right kind of practice, our brains and bodies do allow us to improve and learn, and that is a fascinating lesson in itself.
It reminds me of running a marathon (I've done three, hope to do more). You work really hard at it for months, you read about how to train and prepare and then you do it, and it's exciting and you're elated and feel like shouting to the world, "Look at me! I just ran a marathon in  hrs and  minutes!" Then the next day you think to yourself, "What did I really do? I didn't invent anything, I didn't save anyone. Running 26.2 miles has no use in my daily life. I did it and now it's over and my 'achievement' now seems frivolous and silly." But you did get something out of it--the knowledge that you set a really tough goal--albeit a silly one--for yourself worked at it, followed through and finished it. It sounds funny, but there are honestly times where I'll be struggling with something and will actually think, "If you could get yourself to run a marathon you can get through this." I can't believe it, but I'm about to invoke one of the world's biggest cliches: "It's not the destination, it's the journey." A task, as Foer found, may seem pointless, and an achievement essentially meaningless, but it really isn't if you acquired something else in the process.
I think I better end here on the off chance that Foer finds this and cringes at how a review of his book has turned into something cheerfully self-affirming, like a boilerplate page from Oprah's magazine. So I'll just say read the book, you'll like it.
And for my next achievement: I promise to write short reviews from now on.