Sunday, May 18, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: "Moonwalking with Einstein"

There's something cinematic about Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. At certain points in the book, one can understand why it has been optioned for a movie deal, especially when Foer recalls his interviews of scientists and the subjects of their investigations, when he engages other memorists in divulging the tricks of their trade, and when prepares for and competes in the United States Memory Championship. Those moments move from wistful to comedic, from poignant to suspenseful. 

Participating in mind games was the farthest thought from Foer's mind only one year before, while engaged in a routine journalism assignment on the national memory competition in New York. There he happened on Ed Cooke, a British Grandmaster memorist, who claimed that he could teach Foer to be an excellent memorist in no time. True to his word, Cooke coached Foer all the way to becoming the US Memory Champion within one year.

The best quality of Moonwalking with Einstein is Foer's gift of understatement. He claims early on that he does not intend it to be a how-to resource for memory improvement. Yet it is. By describing the techniques he used to improve his recall, Foer provides numerous techniques and tips the most amnemonic among us can use to remember almost anything on demand. In describing his encounter with Tony Buzan, the English educational consultant whose outrageous claims of transforming humanity make him an easy target of ridicule, Foer prefers to objectively report his findings to let readers decide for themselves whether they should subscribe to Buzan's mind mapping techniques. 

Foer's documentarian approach to memory uncovers stories of individuals past and present whose virtual total recall confounds their contemporaries and makes them the envy of people who long to remember pi to the thousandth place or to summon on demand the weekday, weather, and major headlines of any recorded day in human history. He looks at the remarkable tale of S, the famous patient of early twentieth century Russian psychologist A. R. Luria. S could summon every seemingly insignificant event that ever occurred to him, a skill which actually hurt him professionally because it prevented him from the more important ability to generalize. The author discusses at length the sad case of his meeting EP, whom he calls the most forgetful man in the world, to better understand the characteristics of remembering that are present in some and absent in others. By sharing these situations and the known science underlying them, Foer grants us access into what make our memories work, why we forget things, why we should forget most of them, and how we can recover more than we think.

Some reviews suggest that reading Moonwalking makes one feel like a voyeur touring a curiosity shop, but Foer's crisp prose, earnest inquiries, and interesting summations about the human capacity to remember are more than sufficient reasons to pick up a copy.