August 09, 2011

BOOKS: Moonwalking With Einstein, Joshua Foer (2011)

Another "I spent a year in a quirky subculture" book, and a fairly entertaining one.

Foer's subject is the world of competitive memory, and he decides that the best way to understand it is to take part. He begins studying the memory devices that the world's best competitors use, and ultimately takes part in the US Memory Championship.

Along the way, he delivers an entertaining look at the quirks and the history of human memory. Most of the techniques the top memory pros use derive from those described by Cicero, and were once commonly taught; as memorization has fallen out of favor in modern education, those techniques have become the province of specialists. The decline has only accelerated with the advent of modern technology, which has made it unnecessary for most people to remember much of anything. How many phone numbers, for instance, did you know by heart 20 years ago? How many do you know today, now that they're all stored on your cell phone?

For most of the competitors on the competitive memory circuit, it's not about brute force memorization, but about creativity -- finding ways to turn numbers and faces into a series of striking images that can be remembered more easily than the raw data. There are, of course, a handful of people in the world whose prodigious memories appear to derive from unusual medical conditions, and Foer visits some of them; he also spends some time with a man at the opposite end of the spectrum, who has lost the ability to remember anything for more than a few moments.

This is far from essentially reading; even by the standards of the "quirky subculture" book, the skills of the dedicated memory competitors are arcane and relatively useless in the real world. But Foer's a charming companion, and he's found enough interesting characters and anecdotes to keep me reading happily.

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