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Amazingly Interesting and Helpful
on March 9, 2011
This is one of those rare books that is not only a joy to read, but also immensely helpful. It can help all of us with something that is at once troublesome and worrisome: our memory. It does this with ease, not teaching us some grueling rote memory technique, but one that is easy, natural and intuitive. Yet Moonwalking with Einstein turns out to not be exclusively a how-to book on memory. So what is it?
Well, yes, it is about memory and how to improve it, but it is at once a history of techniques, a description of what memory is and what can go wrong with it, and also a running narrative of how the author, a journalist himself with no special memory skills, becomes one of the most proficient memory athletes in America.
I'd learned a mnemonic device to aid memorization decades ago while in college, and found it to be helpful, but for some reason I'd abandoned the technique once I graduated. But Moonwalking with Einstein expands the mnemonic technique I learned back then by use of something of which I'd never heard: the "Memory Palace." The Memory Palace exploits our inherent skill for remembering images and spatial locations, harnesses these two abilities we all posses in abundance, and relates them to the memorization of numbers, lists and assortments of other difficult to remember items. The amazing thing is that the Memory Palace not only makes memorization easy, it also makes it fun.
What makes the book so interesting is that it is narrative non-fiction and reads like a novel. The author locks his conflict with his own memory early on, gives a sense of rising tension as he accumulates the forces to overcome its limitations, and resolves this internal conflict at the end when he participates in the US Memory Championship. I didn't read it as urgently as I did today's number one bestseller, Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, but still, I couldn't put it down.
In Chapter Five, I scanned the "to-do" list of fifteen items on pages 92/3 that the author had to memorize in his initial attempt, and developed the technique for myself as I read about the author memorizing it. As my Memory Palace, I used an old home of a high school friend with which I was still familiar, constructing useful details as I went. When I had finished reading about the author memorizing the list (took me about five minutes), I had memorized it myself, and I found that the items were not only immediately memorable, but that the list of items and their sequence was still with me days later, and so imbedded in my memory that I'm sure I'll ever forget it. All this, I accomplished effortlessly. This is a truly remarkable feat for me because I'm almost seventy years old and have chronic fatigue syndrome, which adversely affects all aspects of my memory.
It has also given me hope that I might finally learn ancient Greek. I tried to learn it several years ago, but found building a vocabulary so difficult that I abandoned the project. Rote memory was just too much trouble. I am interested in all things Greek, and as it turns out, the Memory Palace technique was invented in the fifth century BC by Simonides following his narrow escape from the collapse of a building. This in itself is a story you'll be interested in reading about. The author says that since the time of this ancient Greek, "the art of memory has been about creating architectural spaces in the imagination." Having been to Greece twice, I have all the makings of a superb Greek Memory Palace. While traveling around Greece and the western coast of Turkey for ten weeks, I visited many cities and islands: Athens, Thebes, Delphi, Ithaca, Mykonos, Delos, Santorini, etc. I can't count all the archaeological sites I visited. What I'm creating isn't just any old Memory Palace but actually a Memory Country. Within each location, I can identify as many locations for storing words and meanings as I need. But not only that, I can also use characters from Greek mythology to create actions and images to reinforce the material, as the author suggests. All this constitutes my Greek Memory Palace: the location where I will store ancient Greek words and meanings as I learn the language, in accordance with the instructions learned in Moonwalking with Einstein. None of it was difficult. I picked it up as I read the book.
The author describes how in the past people viewed their minds as something to perfect by loading it with all sorts of intellectual material. "People used to labor to furnish their minds. They invested in the acquisition of memories the same way we invest in the acquisition of things." [page 134] Some even believed that "the art of memory was a secret key to unlocking the occult structure of the universe." [page 151] This has given me an entirely new view of how to perceive my own mind and nourish it in the future.
The author also discusses how we came to lose touch with our ability to remember with the invention of the printed word. The history of that estrangement and how inventions like Wikipedia and the Internet foster that estrangement is a very interesting story. The author makes the reader aware of what is happening to us and provides a way to project ourselves into the future without suffering so much of technology's debilitating effects.
Perhaps the reason this book is so successful is that the reader never loses sight of the practical use of the information the author is providing because the author is discovering it himself and actively making use of it in his quest to make it into the US Memory Championship.
This is an important book. Everyone can benefit from reading it.