Guy wants to write a book about Memory championships and the field of competitive memorising; becomes USA memory champion. Guy is Joshua Foer, brother of Jonathan Safran Foer of Eating Animals and Everything Is Illuminated fame.
I’m happy to say that with this book, Joshua did what few other people have managed to do: he escaped his brother’s shadow. I recognise him now as a separate author of his own worth; even though they obviously have a lot of things in common which subtly influence their writing, most obviously their Jewish-American upbringing, the fact that he’s Jonathan’s brother comes as more of an afterthought.
To get to the gist: if Eating Animals was the book that turned me into a vegetarian, or if you’re more willing to discuss the matter, a selective omnivore, Moonwalking with Einstein (I couldn’t for the life of me remember this book’s title, until it just clicked, and the fact that it clicked, clicked) made me realise how memory is an art form that can be trained, not really a talent, unless you’re one of the (very) few savants that exist out there whose existence remains quite a mystery. This is valuable information that contradicts most commonly held beliefs about what memory is and how it works.
If I had a cent for each time someone has told that their memory just isn’t good enough as an excuse for not remembering my name, an appointment, a date, a birthday, something—the fact that Google is never farther than a few movements away certainly doesn’t help—I’d probably have enough money to treat myself to a small beer. They, we, just aren’t interested. Even really smart people can’t seem to figure out how their minds work best, and school systems the world over are forcing deadly disingenuous rote memorisation down child and adolescent throats. It’s amazing how we have managed to make the entire educational system a failure the way we have, given the fact that children and adolescents have a much more impressionable memory than adults, which could be used much more intuitively. Just think of all the random things—not taught at school—that you remember from your early years. Such untapped potential!
Talking about untapped potential, what seriously annoyed me while reading the book were its protagonists, namely various memory champions that have made their life’s point memorising strings of random numbers and cards. I know I might be completely missing the point here, but what I would do with such a skill as having a wealth of memory palaces in my mental possession and the ability to use them would be something more, I don’t know—useful? Interesting? Unless they’ve already memorised all that and just decided to use their skill to get some money and recognition. Perhaps. Anyway, it does look like the Art of Memory has moved a long way from way back when it was utilised for reciting speeches, epic poems and the like by heart. Let’s just be happy that in this world of memory externalisation it has been preserved at all.
If you enjoyed this book, or think you could, I would recommend the segment on memory from Derren Brown’s Tricks of the Mind.