Thursday, October 4, 2012

Oregonian Book Review:Moonwalking with Einstein by Jonathan Foer


Joshua Foer
The Penguin Press
$26.95, 307 pages

As any freelance writer can tell you, every story needs a hook, something to grab the attention of harried editors with fingers hovering over their "delete" buttons, and Joshua Foer may well have one of the greatest hooks to come along in recent memory (no pun intended).
After covering the 2005 U.S. Memory Championship for Slate, Foer was challenged by Tony Buzan, founder of the World Memory Championship, to put the competitors' memory techniques to the test by training and competing in the following year's competition.
Not only did Foer take up the challenge, enlisting the help of British memory grandmaster Ed Cooke, he actually won the 2006 U.S. championship and broke the American speed record for memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of cards (1 minute, 40 seconds).
A book deal (complete with a much-ballyhooed $1.2 million advance) and movie option soon followed. Not bad for a guy who readily admits to still forgetting where he put his keys if not his entire car.

While Foer's remarkable achievement makes for a compelling story, it would soon wear thin as the sole premise of a book or movie. "The contest itself unfolded with all the excitement of, say, the SAT," he wrote in Slate, lacking the high drama one expects of sporting events, spelling bees, air-guitar competitions or hot-dog eating contests.

Happily, Foer's "Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything," is a smart, thoughtful, engaging book, one that not only chronicles the year he spent preparing and training his memory for the 2006 championship, but also his efforts to try to understand what memory is, how it works and the role it has played in Western civilization and education.

Those who read "Moonwalking With Einstein" (the title is taken from one of Foer's less bawdy mnemonic devices for remembering a series of three numbers) in hopes of discovering the secret to possessing a photographic memory won't be disappointed, at least not completely -- he makes no secret of the techniques he used to capture the U.S. title, even going so far as walking readers through the memorization of a random shopping list using the ancient method of loci or "memory palace" technique.

"Anyone could do it" seems to be the surprising consensus. But those who are looking solely for a self-help book or an effortless key to unlocking their mind's potential would be better served by taking their chances with faddish "brain gyms," "memory boot camps" or the $265 million-a-year brain-training software industry. Foer's memory successes came about mainly through time-honored techniques and hard work, hardly the stuff of get-rich-quick hucksters.

So how useful is the ability to memorize the first 50,000 digits of pi, or Milton's "Paradise Lost," or the exact order of 27 shuffled decks of cards? Extraordinary as they may be, do those abilities amount to nothing more than nerdy party tricks? Foer acknowledges the validity of such claims, but at the same time points out that dismissing memory development and ignoring its long history as an important, worthwhile discipline is to completely miss the point.

"How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember," he writes. "That's what Ed had been trying to impart on me from the beginning: that memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it's about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human."

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