'Moonwalking with Einstein': How not to forget what we remember
Book review: In his inspired and well-written book "Moonwalking with Einstein," Joshua Foer explores the nature of memory and recounts how he trained himself to be a champ at memorizing. Foer discusses his book at 7 p.m. March 31 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Joshua FoerThe author of "Moonwalking with Einstein" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. March 31 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
'Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything'
by Joshua Foer
Penguin Press, 306 pp., $26.95
If, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote, "To think is to forget," then where does that leave not forgetting? In a curious and complex place, journalist Joshua Foer tells us in "Moonwalking With Einstein," a beguiling exploration of the manifold aspects of memory and memorizing.
On average, Foer writes, people spend about 40 days a year compensating for things they have forgotten. On that score he counts himself average, noting for example that, like most of us, he immediately forgets all but the barest threads of books he has just read with enjoyment.
How did we forget to remember? he asks. Once memory was everything and everything was memorized. Now memorizing is disdained as a waste of time and we "externalize" our memories into books and other receptacles.
Once books were a new invention and were read slowly and deeply as aids to memory rather than as replacements for it. Now we read radically differently, prizing quantity and speed over quality.
So the author spent a year "trying to train my memory, and also trying to understand it — its inner workings, its natural deficiencies, its hidden potential." He ended up with this inspired and well-written debut book about not just memorization, but about what it means to be educated and the best way to become so, about expertise in general, and about the not-so-hidden "secrets" of acquiring skills.
He also ended up, before that, as winner of the U.S. Memory Championship. This after plunging into the somewhat geeky, and mostly male, subculture of competitive memorizers — or, as they refer to themselves, "mental athletes."
There he learns techniques by which nearly everyone can dramatically improve his or her memory: Facts to be memorized are converted into vivid images that are stored in "memory palaces" for recall when needed. It is an exercise requiring imagination, creativity and, perhaps above all, perseverance.
Along the way he comes across fascinating individuals and compelling concepts. In San Diego he meets the Most Forgetful Man in the World, a retiree known as EP whose memory was eaten away by a virus during an illness in 1992. Since then EP has immediately forgotten everything that has happened to him; he forgets that he forgets, living in an eternal present where he encounters his wife anew several times a day.
He meets Gordon Bell, a 73-year-old San Francisco-based Microsoft computer scientist. Bell has constructed a digital "surrogate memory" through which he records, via miniature cameras and recorders and other devices, everything in his life. Foer discovers, too, that "memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information." Which is to say, the more we remember, the more we remember.
Oddly, he does not cover the rare individuals with phenomenal autobiographical memories that allow them to remember every day of their lives. This omission is curious as they have been much in the news of late.
After the year of intense training, Foer found that his "working memory" was still limited. In practical terms, what it came down to is the old saw that practice makes perfect, that with focus, motivation and time, the mind can be trained to do extraordinary things.
The essential lesson he draws from his project is to remain alertly mindful of the world around us, for "we're all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories."
Roger K. Miller is a novelist and freelance writer and editor.