Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein

Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein is an inspirational text to my class of people, the sort who (despite being only in their mid-twenties) walk to the refrigerator and forget what they had planned to eat, go to the store and forget what they had planned to buy, avoid shopping malls because of the risk of losing the car in the parking lot, and forget the names of characters halfway through books. Foer’s memory isn’t markedly better than mine, but after covering the U.S. Memory Championships he’s intrigued by the claims of competitors that what they do (memorizing decks of cards, random numbers, names and faces, among other things) isn’t an inherent skill but something that can be learned.

If you’re me, this is about where you start rolling your eyes, but Foer’s book is immensely readable, busting with the sort of energy typical of Mary Roach’s science-y books. Moonwalking with Einstein follows Foer’s year of study under British memory champion Ed Cooke, but also explores the idea of memory and the lives of several memory champions and savants. Memory, he reveals, isn’t a matter of staring at a sheet of paper and committing its information, line by line, to your short-term memory, but of visualizing facts and placing them in a familiar place. Foer writes of the “memory palace”: taking a place that’s familiar to you and scattering throughout the house visual images. This means, if you need to buy cottage cheese, picturing a model splashing around in a kiddie pool full of cottage cheese. As you walk through your memory palace, Foer explains, the images are there as naturally as if they were part of your long-term memory.

Foer’s description of his journey to the 2006 U.S. Memory Championships is sometimes unnerving: much of his year is spent sitting in his parents’ basement wearing goggles and blinkers, memorizing decks of cards or sheets of random numbers. His exploration of memory, and of how the loss of memory and the rise of written memory has impacted our culture, though, is fascinating, raising questions about the way we choose to remember things and the way we educate our children. Memorization as a form of learning is routinely demonized, but Foer makes a strong case for the reintroduction of memorization to education. Not just that, though; he makes some unnerving points regarding our world of externalized memories:

Imagine waking up tomorrow and discovering that all the world’s ink had become invisible and all our bytes had disappeared. Our world would immediately crumble. Literature, music, law, politics, science, math: Our culture is an edifice built of externalized memories.

The sort of memory Foer is focused on gaining in preparation for the memory competition isn’t the sort that we need in our daily lives, and at end he’s clear that what he gained wasn’t an ability to remember grocery lists or where he parked his car, but an understanding that it is possible to “improve” memory (to the application of apparently useless tasks) through long-understood techniques, such as the Memory Palace, that we’ve long forgotten.

He covers a lot of ground, and he does it well, though there are points at which his goals in writing are unclear, as when he argues that the savant Daniel Tammett is simply a skilled practitioner of mnemonic devices. Foer’s accompanying argument, that if we are awed by savants because of the power of their brains to do the seemingly impossible we should be even more awed by the ability of an average man to train himself to do things like complex equations in his mind, is a strong one, but the reason for devoting so much space to Tammett isn’t readily clear, interesting as Foer’s argument may be. (If you watch the fantastic documentary Brainman online, you’ll be able to pick up all the backstory Foer goes through.) Tammett is an intriguing subject, but not one with any real links to Foer’s subject – unless, as Foer declares (and he is, to be clear, in the definite minority on this front) Tammett’s savant-like skills are actually the result of the same memory techniques Foer writes about. Despite this slip, Foer’s book is a fun one and worth reading, even if you, like me, can’t quite muster the strength to practice the Memory Palace on your grocery list, or even write the damn thing down.


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Back in the early days of my grad school career, I was well-poised to become a memory researcher. Circumstances changed and now I don’t do much involving memory (at least not actively), but I still find the topic really interesting so I was really interested when this book started popping up around the book blogging world. It can be a tricky proposition to read a popular non-fiction book that is based on an area one is very familiar with as there can be generalizations and simplifications that may annoy, but I’m hoping that won’t be the case here!

Comment by Steph

I can’t right now think of an area I have much expertise on, but I know what you mean – sometimes I avoid books, even blog posts, because I know that I’ll get worked up if I disagree with the author or think they’re dumbing down the subject. This one might be okay for you because, though I’m sure there are explanations he’s oversimplified, so much of the book is about him talking to memory champs, or sitting in his basement training for the competition, or the competition itself.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I have the book on my shelves somewhere, I think, but I never quite realised what this was about. Now I’m much more likely to read the book.

Comment by Iris

This is definitely on my to-read list, I’ll have to get a copy soon. Glad it’s worth the read.

Comment by zeteticat

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