Not Quite Unforgettable

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The blurbs for Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (307 pp.; The Penguine Press; $26.95) promise that the book will remind us how important our memories are to our sense of self. All too often, what proves memorable about Foer’s book is what’s been incidental to his life, not useful to our own.

After covering the United States Memory Championship, which tests skills like how accurately contestants retain lists of random words or the speed with which they memorize the order of a deck of cards, Foer decides to train for the event himself. The resulting book is half an in-depth look at how memory works — half chronicle of Foer’s training.

The look at memory tends to be the more interesting half, studying savants who can memorize phonebooks and amnesiacs who can’t remember if they’ve had breakfast that morning.

He also interviews a memory guru who comes off as a kind of self-help huckster and spends time with a teacher who claims advanced memorization techniques give his high school history students an edge on the New York Regents Exam.

As Foer trains, he learns that imagining what you need to remember, using concrete images and places, is key. Apparently, the more salacious the image the better, and thanks to him, I have an image of Claudia Schiffer, swimming in cottage cheese in my foyer, stuck in my head. And that’s among the more tame images that Foer shares from his preparation.

The book requires the scientific reporting skill of a Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) and the self-deprecating humor of an A.J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically). Unfortunately, Foer channels neither author here, failing to bring Gladwell’s clarity of purpose or Jacobs’ humor to his writing.
He proves himself capable, and at times quite engaging, when he’s not talking about himself.  The book’s feel is uneven at times precisely because Foer has not fully found his own voice as a writer.

In addition, the author fails to follow up on compelling leads. For example, covering the World Memory Championships in Oxford, England, Foer reports that women take a totally different and seemingly effective approach to memorizing poetry.   given that a woman took first place
He then does nothing with the possibility that gender affects the ways we remember things.  Similarly, Foer only hints at a possible role ethnicity plays. A world-class memory, it would seem, does not impact intellectual curiosity one iota.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to learn from his book. I did remember I had to write this review — by imagining Foer holding a huge promotional poster for the book while perched on the computer in my den. RT

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