Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Penguin Press, 2011, 320 pages.
I was so excited to read this book. A book about memory and science, and improving memory! I knew that one of the topics Foer addressed was the cultural shift toward external memory: writing down and storing the things we want to remember, and cognitively losing the ability to memorize. I remember nights with my grandfather or my great aunt, who could reel off stanzas of poetry that they had learned in school. I envied that ability, especially when compared to the vague way my own recall seemed to work. Although Foer warns at several points that this book isn’t meant to be used as a self-help book, I was hoping for it to be a guide.
In some ways, it is: Foer provides the historical background of memory as a series of disciplined techniques. To improve his own recall enough that he can compete in a memory championship, he uses the technique of building a memory palace: visualizing memory cues in specific rooms of his childhood house. Focusing on strange and unique images, even comically raunchy ones (I will never think of Oprah or Danny DeVito the same way….) as mnemonic cues for things like card sequences or multi-digit numbers.
Foer’s writing is certainly thorough. He provides historical background, from ancient classical philosophers on forward. The bulk of his story is anchored in the present day. Foer moves from interviewing participants in memory championships, to training to participate himself. Along the way, he introduces plenty of eccentrics: the charismatic memory guru Tony Buzan; Daniel Tammet, who is either a savant or a talented con man; Foer’s memory coach, Ed Cook, and a whole host of others.
I was particularly interested in Foer’s encounter with a history teacher who used classical memory palace techniques to coach high school students toward stunning acts of recall. In introducing Raemon Matthews, and his students, “The Talented Tenth,” Foer delved into discussions of the current school system which I found fascinating. A century ago, classroom education emphasized broad and extensive verbatim recall of information. I can’t help but feel we’ve lost something rich, in shifting away from that. Even when I’m reading historical romances, I notice the shift: just how often and easily people quote classic literature in conversation lends a richness to discourse that I feel like I’m missing.
As Foer concludes his study of memory champions and the “art of memory,” he makes a telling point. Even after training himself to be so good at memory palaces and mnemonic systems that he can recall several card decks and do other competitive tasks; he still forgets his keys. So, as impressive as competitive memory feats are, they’re part of a specialized set of rarefied intellectual gymnastics, lacking real world application. The narrative is more of an esoteric participant observation sports story, than a primer on improving memory. So, I found it a disappointing, even basically forgettable, read.