Sunday, January 29, 2012

Jonathan Foer: Moonwalking with Einstein

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The mind is a terrible thing to waste. Like anybody who cares half a bit about their writing, I try not to use that kind of cliched cliche, but in the case of the people that Joshua Foer meets and studies and describes and follows in "Moonwalking with Einstein," it's kind of an appropriate opening line. Ever heard of the "Memory Championship?" I hadn't until I read "Moonwalking." Or maybe I had, and I had forgotten it. Both things are almost equally possible.  Memory Championships are the Olympics of people with good memories, which everyone wants to have. The thing is, they're not the Olympics of people with good memories, they're the people  who have trained themselves how to remember (often useless) stuff and prove it in a variety of ways like memorizing decks of cards really fast or memorizing unpublished (and terrible) poems. Foer sees one of these contests and accepts an offer of a participant to train under him and enter the next contest. He wants to find out if, like the participants say, they really aren't any different from anyone else. And it turns out that they're not: they've learned how to use something called the "memory palace," and so they can remember things better than normal, when they want to. But when it comes to their memories, well, they're probably not any different than anyone else's.

Foer has written a must-read book that covers a lot of things, most of which I've already forgotten. This, I've learned, is normal as the average person can only keep seven things in their minds at once and I'm already half through my next book which is full of facts and figures. So why do we read if we're just going to forget it? That's a great question, which I never really thought about before, and just one of the ones Foer addresses. Before books were everywhere, memory was much more important and served a different purpose: you read a book in order to memorize it, and to "build an organizational scheme for accessing them." Books were written LIKETHISWITHALLOFTHE words strung together for pages and pages. It was very hard to read, let alone keep track of individual facts. You had to be very familiar with a text in order to understand it, since there was no table of contents, no index, no punctuation, no binding. Basically, you had to memorize the pre-book in order to read it. Foer gives the example of the Torah- you have to know what you're looking at. He gives the example of his Bar Mitzvah: "On the day I became a man, I was really just a parrot in a yarmulke." When the writing and the printed word advanced, Foer explains that you still might only see a book one time, since they were so rare. At this point, the point of reading was to memorize information. He calls this "intensive" reading as opposed to "extensive" reading, and it required memory. Now we read with breadth, but little depth. I used the index of "Moonwalking" to find that passage, and by the time I return the book to the library, I will have forgotten the majority of the book. In fact, I started writing book reviews on this blog to help me remember what I've written. Sixteenth century scholar Michel de Montaigne wrote that he started writing notes in the back of every book he read "to compensate a little for the treachery and weakness of my memory." It seems to me that his memory was substantially better than mine, because he must have remembered which books he read in order to find those notes.

So this book was great.  And this is the first time that this is happened, but I'm considering buying this book even though I read the library version. Maybe it's because I wanted something to remind my external memory (read it and find out) or maybe it's because I now know I won't remember it unless I buy it and write something in the back of it.  But I've made a change to the blog. If you note under the Book cover, you can see that I've added a link to purchase this book. It's my little stand against Amazon, which is pretty much the evil empire. If you click that link, it will take you to Indiebound, which let's you shop at your local bookstore for any book you want. In this case, the link will take you straight to "Moonwalking," but if you click the icon on the upper right corner of the blog, you can just go to Indiebound.  You can then buy books at your bookstore. Or any bookstore, they'll ship to to you. You can support local businesses, you'll pay sales tax (which you won't at Amazon in most states) which will support your city and state, and you'll support authors and publishers who make more money when you pony up a few more dollars for a book.  You'll also make me feel less guilty if you a) do it or b) never mention this again- I feel a little slimy discussing money.  We'll all forget this in a few days, anyhow!