Moonwalking With Einstein

In this wise, witty, and fairly memorable book, science writer Joshua Foer—brother of both former New Republic editor Franklin and wunderkind novelist Jonathan Safran—cuts his own writerly teeth on a mysterious, dense, and occasionally spongy subject: the workings of human memory. Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything isn't, however, just a book about science, or about abstract practices of remembering, it's also Foer's quasi-memoir about the year he became, by an odd string of events, the winner of the U.S. Memory Championship. Even while Foer relates a great deal about the history, cultural relevance, and new science of recall, he takes himself as his own subject, setting out to see what he can learn by trying to improve his own memory. On the journey, he visits things as diverse as card memorization, Renaissance literature, and chicken sexing, as well as the wacky circuit of competitive memory trainers, who spend large portions of their days training themselves to memorize elaborate strings of binary numbers at lightning speed.

 

All of this emerged, it seems, from a moment of unconscious whimsy. One day in 2005, Foer, recently graduated from college and traveling to write a freelance article, stopped by the Weightlifting Hall of Fame. After seeing pictures of the world's strongest man, he began to wonder about the world's smartest. Smartness is of course relative, but some Internet searching uncovered people who held the world championships in memory—who had performed elaborate feats such as memorizing decks of cards in under four minutes, or reciting pi out to its farthest decimal. The idea of the memory champion standing in as a proxy for human smartness intrigued him. Following his hunch with an article, Foer met a cocksure Brit named Ed, a ranking "grandmaster of memory," who promised to teach him to improve his memory so that he, Foer, could win such a title. Foer was intrigued and drawn in. For the rest of the book, Foer follows a world that runs parallel to, but is not the same thing as, remembering: the geeky subculture of people who train for and compete in memory competitions.

 

The book that emerges traces a highly unusual journey reflecting what Foer learns about memory, about memory training, and about himself. The first two subjects are ultimately the most fascinating—so engrossing they make the book hard to put down. In attempting to remember more, Foer delves into a seemingly forgotten aspect of the ancient world: the fact that in the time before computers and iPhones, but really before, say, even the mass printing of that seemingly-endangered technology called the book, if you wanted to learn something you had to memorize it.

 

Accordingly, ancient learning was memorizing, and learning was also learning how to memorize. Foer is at his richest when he's uncovering now-lost medieval memory techniques and linking them to the ways we now understand that the fibers of memory work today. Foer explores a new-to-us but common-to-the-ancients technique called the Memory Palace, where, to master lists, one deposits items along them in a spatial pattern with which one is familiar: i.e., to remember your to-do list imagine its items strewn in a familiar path along your route to work. (Apparently our spatial memories are richer and stronger than our other forms of remembering). Foer notes how older memory techniques rely on expanding the network of associations in which the memory is placed, and then developing those networks so that large strings of memory can lodge in them. This can allow, perhaps quite literally, for mind-expansion: Foer muses enticingly about how memory, or increased memory, might be linked to things as seemingly discrete as both mindfulness and expertise—how the very fabric of being able to remember better has the capacity to enlarge both our perception and our experience of the world.

 

Here's the thing: this wonderful, rich, philosophical, well-written premise devolves over its 277 pages into an account of Foer spending long hours to learn what essentially amount to a couple of tricky stunts—being able to recite the order of a deck of cards in the fastest possible time, or retain arcane bits of knowledge more effectively over the course of a competition which has him regurgitate them. By the end, even Foer seems tired: upon winning the U.S. memory competition, his first emotion "was not happiness or relief or self-congratulation." It was, he discovers, "simply exhaustion." And what seemed promising about being able to remember more—that it might lead one to a space of expertise, or a more richly textured life—these payoffs seem not to emerge in Foer's meditation on his post-championship haze, which mostly consists of getting wasted with his new British friends.

 

If, in the end, the book has less payoff than it might, it's still both humorous and intriguing. One finds oneself thinking of the memory palace, that artificial mental structure by which a mind could be furnished with perhaps unlimited marvels. We live in an era when some of us forget even our own phone numbers. But the mind is a bigger thing than any of us realize, and Foer reminds us to keep exploring it.

July 22: On this day in 1941, on his twelfth wedding anniversary, Eugene O'Neill presented the just-finished manuscript of Long Day's Journey into Night to his wife, Carlotta.

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