I have to memorize all the streets in my city, all nearby hospitals, and all thirty fire stations for my final test to get off probation. I think that's why Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2011) by Joshua Foer caught my eye. I love reading stories about people trying new things, I'm fascinated by how the mind works, and I figured I might pick up some helpful hints for my own memorizing challenges along the way.
Joshua Foer attended the U.S. Memory Championships to write up a short article on what it involved. After meeting some of the people, he decided to look into it more closely and went on to enter the U.S. championships the next year. Foer details his experiences for his quest to become a memory champion as he also explores various topics related to memory.
I'm not sure if it's just that I've been so busy and stressed lately that I have less patience, but I found this book rather frustrating. There were certainly good parts: the story of Foer's training and the actual competition was fascinating. Some of the tidbits I learned about memory were also very interesting. But after the initial excitement of learning about these worldwide memory competitions and how they work, Foer padded the narrative with unnecessary tangents. I think Foer was trying to write a personal account of his experiences and be a journalist at the same time and it didn't work. I wanted more personal detail and thoughts on his experience and training, but less personal opinion when he was discussing his research. His judgment on some of the memory crowd that were not in his new clique of friends showed through in a way that felt less than objective.
The techniques people use to accomplish these amazing feats of memory truly is amazing, and Foer discusses the "memory palace" and converting numbers into memorable images. But just as I was figuring out how it all worked, he just stopped. Foer initially learned to memorize a list of 15 items by placing them in his head in his old childhood home, which he described in detail. But that left me with a ton of questions! Isn't there a limit to how many items you can put in your house? What do you do when you want to memorize more than 15 items like they do in the memory championships? Isn't there a limit? Doesn't memorizing a bunch of random information over and over again make all your memory palaces so cluttered with images that you can't remember anything? What was it really like?
But Foer had moved on to a [much longer than needed] discussion of the history of memory, what Socrates thought about memory, how the development of books and printing presses changed the need for memory and what that means for us. Foer also discussed education and whether rote memorization should be used for teaching. I felt that I read at least 100 times that people used memory palaces to remember things and these days no one needed to remember anything anymore. Foer also goes on a little tangent to [possibly] discredit a memory savant and look down his nose at Tony Buzan for successfully commercializing these memory tricks. All of this felt tangential and superficial. I felt that if Foer really wanted to get into these topics, he needed to dig a little deeper, give me some more detail, and really prove to me what he's professing.
Finally, the last thing that frustrated me about this book is that it all felt so pointless. Once I learned the minimal insights of how our memory works best and the tricks the memory champions use, I couldn't figure out why people were spending their lives memorizing images to go along with numbers to win this one, little-known competition. People are spending their lives trying to one-up each other, but they're not learning anything new or creating anything. It's a frustrating waste of talent. Foer and his new memory pals all seemed to be mid-twenties, living with their parents, yet able to travel and party internationally while snubbing their noses at those memory gurus trying to make a buck from the whole enterprise.
Now that I've made it to the end, I feel that this review may come across more negatively than I intended. Besides the middle, which seemed to drag, I really did enjoy the beginning and end of this book. I definitely learned something, and I might try out some of the techniques Foer discussed.
FAVORITE QUOTE: "I consider the law to be a zero-sum game, and therefore a pointless use of a life...Being good at being a lawyer means merely, on average, maximizing injustice."