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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Story Sundays: Kate Chopin’s “Ma’ame Pelagie”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

The title character of Kate Chopin’s “Ma’ame Pelagie” lives much of the story in the literal shadow of her old home, in the figurative shadow of her past. This home is the center of Pelagie’s life, the raising of funds to restore it her life’s work, and the outside world intrudes only with the arrival of her niece: “The coming of La Petite, bringing with her as she did the pungent atmosphere of an outside and dimly known world, was a shock to these two, living their dream-life.” Despite La Petite’s entrance to her world, the past remains far more alive to Pelagie than the present, and the story considers her relation to time and memory and the ways in which Pelagie preserves her memory. Pelagie will ultimately give up the physical monument to that past for her sister’s sake; but does that bring Pelagie’s own life any more into the present day?

Read “Ma’ame Pelagie” online

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Writing While Reading
September 10, 2010, 3:04 pm
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Certain things about working in a school, watching students study with English textbooks designed for writing, drawing and coloring in, in which they are not allowed to write, draw or color, get you thinking about the physical aspects of reading and, more broadly, books.

Students, of course, write in their English books. They take the stickers from the back of the book and put them in their proper places. Now that we are at the start of a new school year, students are supposed to erase all the answers penciled in by last year’s fourth graders; I suspect that more than a few of them won’t do this.

When I was growing up, I treated books like sacred objects. I was careful not to crack their spines; I never wrote in them; I would sooner use a five-dollar bill or a piece of toilet paper as a bookmark than dog-ear a page.

Vladimir Nabokov, who lived and completed his ...

Image via Wikipedia

Now, though, writing in books is one of the most pleasurable aspects of reading for me. Last year my mother mailed my copy of my favorite book, Ada by Vladimir Nabokov, to me, along with a few of his other books. Ada in particular has been so overtaken by notes, stickers, underlines, circlings of favorite or auspicious-seeming words, that I’ll never be able to loan it out; nor will I leave it behind in the Peace Corps library, for other volunteers, when I go home in a year. My history of reading Ada is contained in that book’s pages, and while I may buy a new copy one day so I can “start fresh,” I don’t want to lose the memory of my first, second, third times reading the book.

There’s something valuable in being able to track your own progress through a book. To see a giant question mark scrawled next to something I didn’t understand on first reading marks the necessity of rereading certain books. Nabokov, for example… I can’t begin to understand one of his books until I’ve read it twice, owing to the nature of his style and construction, the ways in which he plays with the time of the reader and the time of the book through his construction of the narrative.

Having until only four or five years ago been someone who wouldn’t dream of writing in a book, I find this shift kind of interesting. I mean, one of the things I don’t like about my kindle is that although you can take notes and underline passages, you can’t pick up a favorite book, flip through it until you hit an underlined sentence or a dog-eared page. Isn’t there something valuable in the visible memory of our reading histories? And even in glimpsing someone else’s history – buying a used book and trying to work out someone else’s notes, favorite sentences? Sometimes frustrating to discover you’ve inadvertently bought a marked-up copy, but sometimes you get something like my copy of Of Mice and Men, with every curse word scribbled out (a few times so hard the pencil went through the page) and with a suggested replacement written in the margins.

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