Cannonball Read IV: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
I found myself sitting on a folding chair in the basement of my parents’ home at 6:45 a.m., wearing underpants, earmuffs, and memory goggles, with a printout of eight hundred random digits in my lap and an image in my mind’s eye of a lingerie-clad garden gnome (52632) suspended over my grandmother’s kitchen table. I suddenly looked up, wondering - remarkably, for the first time - what in the world I was doing with myself.
-Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein
You have a tongue in your mouth. Your tongue, a group of muscles, is sitting inside your mouth.
At least, for me, thinking about my tongue makes it feel like it’s two or three times bigger than it is. I know it’s weird that this is the metaphor I’ve chosen to describe reading this book, but it’s kind of apt, because it’s a weird but engrossing story.
Foer, a journalist, goes to cover the U.S. Memory Championships and hears consistently from these “mental athletes” that anyone could perform feats like perfectly memorizing the order of a deck of cards in two minutes. They were just ordinary people who, through grueling practice, had trained themselves in the ancient technique of “The Memory Palace”. The brain remembers visuals easier, so these athletes translate their data - random digits, lines of poetry, cards - into very memorable images which they store in mental “rooms” - places they’ve toured in real life and stored to house their information. Foer decides that if they can do it, he can do it, and sets out to compete in the championship himself the next time around.
Usually I’m not a huge non-fiction reader. I tend to zone out if the book is basically facts strung together and wish there was more color and drama holding it together and propelling it forward. However, Foer’s story has some really great characters: Ed, his hard-partying memory coach, Tony Buzan, a man who has built a global fortune on marketing his memory techniques, and Foer himself, who has a really great narrative style which helps the necessary detours into neurology and ancient history really interesting, never dry. He looks into famous savants with legendary memory skills and also explores what happens when memories are erased, like in the case of EP, who lost part of his brain to a case of meningitis and can only remember his childhood to 1950, and struggles to retain information he intakes after two minutes.
The best part of the book is it makes you think deeply about your own brain, about your own memory - about the tongue in your own mouth. Foer’s story is relatable. He’s a regular guy who forgets what he had for breakfast yesterday - just like me! The book makes you think seriously about the limits and capacity of your own mind. With intense daily effort, I could feasibly memorize all the kings and queens of England and actually retain them for recall. Or, through some terrible tragic chance, I could lose the ability to remember anything. I’m not about to strap on a pair of memory goggles and start training as Foer did, but his book was an enjoyable and informative glance at what’s possible - maybe I too can actually learn people’s names at parties and remember them if I run into one of them on the T. Maybe. Or I’ll just say, “Hey, so nice to see you again!”, avoid names, and keep thinking about my tongue.
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