Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer

Personal Blurb-style Intro (aka “Why I picked up this book”):  Like most people, I look at the celebrity magazines next to the candy and soda displays at the cashier check-out in the grocery store. And, like most people, I don’t pick up anything from those bins unless there are extenuating circumstances. In particular, celebrity magazines just don’t end up in my hands all that often because if I want any celebrity gossip, it is much more humorous to read Michael K’s version of it over at dlisted.com. Be careful there, if you get hooked before you’re offended, you could spend tens of minutes reading posts about decidedly non-celebrity happenings. The upside is you’ll laugh out loud at some point.

The displays I am most susceptible to are the ones at my local library, the Sigonella library on base. It doesn’t matter what the genre is, I will take a few moments on my way to the check-out desk, or even on my way out the door and just browse titles. I browse the travel books, the YA section (that’s “Young Adult”), and the eclectic mix of new and not-so-new books lovingly arranged by the library staff. I say lovingly because I’ve shared my library love with the staff, and we got goosebumps together when I was the first person to check out the 2011 Fodor’s Italy guidebook! Weee!

“Moonwalking with Einstein” was one of these display books that caught my eye. The title attracted me with its mix of pop culture (Michael Jackson moonwalking) and respected historical science (Einstein). Of course, I immediately bonked myself of the head and groaned – I had walked right into some marketing genius’s trap. Nevertheless, I opened the dust jacket (which I only do for non-fiction, I like to be surprised by fiction), read as far as “…draws on cutting-edge research, a surprising cultural history of memory…” and I decided to take the book with me. I have no problem checking out more books than I can possibly read and then finding out which one triumphs in earning my attention.

“Moonwalking” grabbed me right away and I groaned and laughed my way from start to finish.

Summary:

Budding journalist Joshua Foer documents his rise from reporter to “memory athlete” in this story of how he dominated the U.S. Memory Championship in 2006.  The book starts with Foer covering the 2005 competition as a journalist-hustler’s attempt to creatively get another byline. Foer’s ambition and drive to achieve at something are a result of his post-collegiate angst about living in his parents’ home and operating out of a basement office. Early on, we meet his insistent memory coach, Ed Cooke. Cooke is a European memory champ and Foer presents him as a lovable geek of a character. Cooke introduces Foer to the international memory community and through his stories, Foer offers us a glimpse into the mishmash of lifestyles of memory competitors.

While we are introduced to the main “memory athletes” in the contemporary forefront, you get the sense that Foer himself never decided whether he admired or pitied these guys (almost exclusively men). He describes endearing and pathetic behaviors both, though he always shows a deliberate respect for those mentioned in the book. Is this respect a mask behind which Foer hides some disdain or can we trust that he isn’t holding back any insights? With one particular character, who seems to cross the line between a natural wonder and a memory athlete, Foer honestly shares his doubts with the man. The description Foer provides of confronting the man with his doubts was persuasive to me. Whatever Foer might be keeping from the book is likely only petty drivel that I am not interested in reading anyway. Kudos to you for keeping your prose focused.

From there, we journey through Foer’s run at the U.S. Memory Championships through one-hour-a-day practices, or maybe a little less. Though this storyline sounds as boring as it is, Foer does a great job of inserting trivia, research and anecdotes into the chronology of his short-lived memory career to keep momentum going. Foer reviews the history of memory, brings us up to speed with current memory research, and features exceptional persons, such as Kim Peek (who inspired the movie Rain Man) and his brethren. The mix of extreme personal examples with well-researched detail reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell‘s writing style (and leaves me just a little skeptical of the prose, same as with Gladwell). As the competition draws near, Foer focuses on his competition strategy and opponents. He offers colorful descriptions of his competitors, with a unique mix of factual competitive history and Foeresque whimsical fancy to build suspense out of a one-day event.

The only downside to the delightful Foer journey was the sense that he is holding something back. Is it some insecurity? Is he angry? I specifically disliked the barbs he laid out for his father in the book. We get a hint of Foer’s resentment as he describes his setup at his parents house. The clear disdain for his set-up made me question whether I was reading the memoir of some entitled jerk. His family history of success certainly offers Foer many advantages (live rent-free at home, love and support for his intellectual pursuits without income), along with a lot of pressure to deliver (see: sibling rivalry).

Was he attempting to commiserate with the large numbers of unemployed college graduates? If so, he belly-flopped miserably. I could send out an email and in minutes have a shortlist of law school grads willing to move into your parents’ basement office while they search down their dream job. Maybe he was just trying to offer some color to his back story, I don’t know; it just felt whiny to me.

Whatever his reasons for complaining about his physical set-up, he largely avoided indulging in discussion of any family insecurities, except for a poignant slam on his father’s golf game. It happens while Foer discusses the OK Plateau, which he deems “the point at which you decide you’re OK with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.” (170). After acknowledging that “it will hurt him to read this,” he accuses his father’s golf game as being stuck in the OK plateau and calls his father a “duffer.” (170). While he could have easily found myriad other humorous examples to use, he rails on his father. While I may be missing out on a family inside joke, it made Foer seem callous and ungrateful for the parental support that afforded him the opportunity to write this book.

It may be that Foer was trying to build some mystery in the father-son relationship. There is another mention of him hiding his memory work from his father, who regularly checks in with the basement office. But this relationship isn’t touched again and its mention only functions to make me doubt Foer’s affinity for his fellow memory athletes all the more. This leads to the real reason I am uncomfortable with these parts of the book: Is Foer”slumming it” to get a book idea? (Hello, I have a cynical side!)

For the few uncomfortable moments like these, the rest of the book is charming, informative and humorous. Despite his questionable opinion of the memory athlete career path, Foer does take himself and memory training seriously in a way that challenges the reader to take her own life as seriously. After all, if we choose to engage in an activity, we only have ourselves to laugh at if it is making a joke of our life. So, even if your passion is not mainstream, and advancing to become its leader only affords you minor celebrity, only you have the opportunity to know that you’ve led your life with a certain amount of integrity, which comes from treating your life seriously and acting deliberately. The book left me with the sense that I have untapped skills and talents within me and inspired me to start investing in deliberate practice. Thank you, Mr. Foer!

Best excerpts:

“Cicero agreed that the best way to memorize a speech is point by point, not word by word, by employing memoria rerum. In his De Oratore, he suggests that an orator delivering a speech should make one image for each major topic he wants to cover, and place each of those images at a locus. Indeed, the word “topic” comes from the Greek word topos, or place. (The phrase “in the first place” is a vestige from the art of memory).” p. 123

“What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which [Anders] Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance.” p. 171

“Ed [Cooke] sent me a quote from the venerable martial artist Bruce Lee, which he hoped would serve as inspiration: “There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.” I copied that thought onto a Post-it note and stuck it on my wall. Then I tore it down and memorized it.” p. 185

“And yet clearly I had changed. Or at least how I thought about myself had changed. The most important lesson I took away from my year on the competitive memory circuit was not the secret to learning poetry by heart, but rather something far more global and, in a way, far more likely to be of service in my life. My experience had validated the old saw that practice makes perfect. But only if it’s the right kind of concentrated, self-conscious, deliberate practice. I’d learned firsthand that with focus, motivation, and, above all, time, the mind can be trained to do extraordinary things. This was a tremendously empowering discovery. It made me ask myself: what else was I capable of doing, if only I used the right approach?” pp. 267-8

ISBN 978-1594202292 “Moonwalking with Einstein”, Penguin Press HC, March 3, 2011

Book’s Website:  http://joshuafoer.com/moonwalking-with-einstein/

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3 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Media

3 responses to “Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer

  1. Sounds interesting, I’ll have to check it out!

  2. thanks for this post, looks like an interesting book.

    • it can be a quick read, too. Although the book is about memory training, I think the real point of the book is recognizing the value of “deliberate practice” – which it sounds like you are doing with the primal eating. I like the humor you use in your writing, which Foer uses, too.

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