“Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” (2011) / Joshua Foer / 1.28.17

21 Feb

Moonwalking With Einstein, Joshua FoerA friend of mine recommended this one to me many years back. And I actually bought a copy way back then, but then it sat on my shelf for about four years. After reading Moneyball, though, I found my desire to read nonfiction suddenly stoked, and so I perused the nonfiction section of my shelf, and I noticed Moonwalking With Einstein still sitting there, collecting dust, and I decided it was time.

My conclusion? It’s a truly weird and interesting read, and I mean this to say that it was compelling and brilliant even in some respects, but I’m not sure why.

Moonwalking With Einstein is simultaneously about three things. First, it’s a fascinating and somewhat disconcerting deep dive into the subculture of memory sport and its motley bunch of characters. Now I, like most of you, I’m sure, had never heard of competitive memory sports. Imagine a scene like what one sees at the National Spelling Bee, but instead of kids spelling complicated, polysyllabic words that most of us have never heard of, you have a bunch of strange adults who have trained for years to do things such as memorizing the order of playing cards in a randomly shuffled deck, looking for a few minutes at a printed sheet of randomly generated numbers and then reciting them aloud from memory after the paper’s been taken away, or looking at 100 photographs of people with their corresponding names and then producing the names from memory a bit later with only the photographs to prompt them, or reciting the number pi to thousands or even tens of thousands of digits. It’s all kind of crazy.

And there are these various characters we meet throughout the this survey of modern memory sports, including Ed Cooke, a British mnemonist who befriends our author, Joshua Foer, and becomes a valuable source for this odd and oddly fascinating book, Tony Buzan, a kind of capitalist, Tony Robbins-esque, self-help guru in the memory game, Daniel Tammet, known as “the prodigious savant,” who’s able to memorize all manner of absurdly large chunks of information nearly instantly, allegedly without using any of the strategies used by competitive mnemonists, and Kim Peek, the savant upon whom the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man is based.

Joshua FoerPerhaps the most fascinating character we meet, though, is a man named only as “EP,” who, owing to a particularly vicious infection of the herpes simplex virus that ate precisely through the portions of his brain responsible for remembering, simply can’t remember anything. Everything anyone tells him, anything he reads or sees on television, is forgotten within a few moments. He’s a man living entirely in the present, incapable of looking back or planning ahead. It’s wild stuff.

Secondly, Foer also takes us on various asides throughout the book and walks us through a survey of the role of memory in human history as well as in educational pedagogy. Basically, back before writing was invented, the human capacity for memory was much greater than it is today, simply because there weren’t books on hand to retain all the information for us outside our brains. As writing developed, and the printing press made books much more commonplace, we see the gradual recession of the capacity for humans to remember. That alone is super interesting, but Foer dives even deeper into all of this stuff, which I won’t get into here.

Perhaps most interesting in this section of the book is Foer’s discussion about the ongoing debate in educational circles about the role of memorization. In general, over the last hundred years or so, we’ve seen a turning away from rote memorization and instead a focus on fostering creativity in students, and Foer highlights some of the arguments against this notion, arguments that warn that this has led us to a very dangerous place, namely a society in which we have a lot of very creative folks who know very few facts.

Third, Moonwalking With Einstein does something brilliant that not a lot of other nonfiction books do. Our author, Joshua Foer, rather than maintaining objective distance and reporting on the weird world of competitive mnemonics, inserts himself directly into it, and becomes a competitor himself, and treats us to a front-row view of his training and his competing in the 2006 USA Memory Championship. Primary among the strategies used by mnemonists is the concept of the memory palace. In short, you take a place you’re very, very familiar with, like the house you grew up in, and when you need to remember a list of things, you take each item on the list and picture it in a specific place in the house, and picture it specifically and memorably—it helps if the image you create is funny or lewd—and you place these items in the house in the order you want to remember them as you “walk” through the house. All of the strategies used by mnemonists, and by Foer as we watch him preparing and training and ultimately competing, are based on this simple tactic. It really is quite compelling and delightful following Foer’s own foray into competitive mnemonics. This above all else is I think what makes the book so remarkable.

To close, I’ll say this. Moonwalking With Einstein is a truly odd book, but odd in the best way, like nothing else you’ve ever read. Foer pulls back the curtain on this subculture—albeit one that very few folks have ever even heard of—and it’s all quite remarkable. I know it may sound a little strange, but Foer writes it all with such a sharp and wide-eyed fascination, and with such well-researched expertise, that you can’t help but be sucked in.

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