Moonwalking With Einstein-Book Review

How good is your memory? I've always had a good memory for trivia and random facts (I've been told to try out for Jeopardy). Now, many of us have pretty decent memories for school and work. But how many of us can memorize a deck of cards in under two minutes? How about fourteen decks (you read right) in under an hour? Can you remember the names and faces of ninety-nine people having seen them only once? Those are some of the challenges someone who tries out for the U.S.A Memory Championship has to face. And in writing his book Moonwalking With Einstein Joshua Foer did exactly all those things. He even set an American memory record in the process of winning the U.S.A. Memory Championship. The title of the book comes from one of the techniques he used to memorized a deck of cards. Einstein stood for a card in the deck. Seeing him moonwalk reminded him Michael Jackson (The King of Hearts). I'll spare you the crass descriptions he used for other cards! (Be warned there is some cussing in the book).

It's interesting to read about the strange and unusual feats people can accomplish. But Foer makes it a point to show just how difficult it is to do a lot of what these uber-geeks do. And it is difficult, but not impossible. Having seen the competition, he decides to spend a year training for the event.  Along the way he shows some of the debates, crazy antics, and cool tricks a lot of the memory champs are able to accomplish. He befrends, and is trained by British Memory Champ Ed Cooke. Cooke seems to come off as a bit smug in the book, but that seems to run in the blood of a lot of the people Foer meets. He gets to meet famous memory man Tony Buzan. I have to admit, having read Buzan's books in the past, I was expecting him to come off geeky and neebish. Turns out, the man is a flashy diva and he has the clothes to prove it. Along the way Foer takes his readers through the history of mnemonics (the art and techniques used in memorizing). Some of them include the Memory Palace, Linking, and The Peg.

I was glad to see the role medieval theologians played in keeping the art of memory alive. The truth is, they had to. For instance, Foer mentions that a lot of theologians like St. Augustine might have access to a book for a short while. After that, they might never see it again. So they had to be able to memorize the contents of the book. If they ever quoted it in any of their writings, it was done from memory. And that is what really impressed me about this book. I was able to see one of God's gifts and see how useful it is. Imagine not being able to read any scripture for a while? How much of it would you have had memorized? Before the mass printing of the Bible, pastors and theologians and laypeople had to have large parts of scripture memorized. We really are spoiled in the west. We have easy access to a Bible and most any other reference work (even wikipedia!). But the book points out that for the longest time, people's libraries were made up of maybe a bible, a devotional book, and few other things. After reading the book, I felt very challenged to memorize more scripture. I think I'll start using my memory to memorize the Book of Mark.

In search of how memory works, Foer interviewed people with unusual memories. People like Kim Peek.  He inspired Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man. Turns out even his sharp mind isn't fallible. But he was able to remember vast amounts of information and recall them immediately. Another person he interviewed was a man known only as EP. He was studied by psychologists because he had lost a large portion of his memory due to a syphiliss infection that ate away parts of his brain. The result was that he only remembered his life this his late 50's. He was in his 80's when Foer interviewed him. EP would forget things after a few minutes, so he was confined to his home. Foer describes his daily routine of going for a walk and talking to neighbors. Talking to them was like meeting them for the first time. A weird and sad bliss to live in. Reading about this man was moving. I hope I never forget my loved ones like that. But while I do have access to a good memory, I hope to make the best use of it.

'Moonwalking' isn't a how-to book. But it does have a lot of helpful advice on how to prepare for the memory championship, as well as a lot of insight into how memory techniques helped society before the printing press. If you'd like to read some good books on memory improvement, take a look here.

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