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73 of 86 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A "Memorable" Book That Underestimates Its Readers, March 9, 2011
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This review is from: Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (Hardcover)
Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking With Einstein" is a good book, but it will leave some readers thinking about how much better it could have been. In "Moonwalking," Foer tries to have it both ways: to write a serious book about an important subject, memory, while at the same time writing an accessible bestseller (which it no doubt will be). He does this by hooking his excellent writing about the science, history, and cultural significance of memory into the tale of his competition in the 2006 U.S. Memory Championship competition, complete with idiosyncratic competitors, many of whom apparently have neither the time, inclination, or in some cases the basic hygiene required to earn a living other than by hawking "memory secrets" with all the dignity of late night TV pitchmen.

Don't get me wrong. Overall, "Moonwalking" is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Foer has a breezy writing style, and is at times delightfully funny. But it is that same entertaining, shaggy-dog style that ends up contrasting so glaringly with his sometimes profound and always though-provoking sections that tell the serious story of memory and its devaluation in the 20th Century.

Foer's writing on the importance of memory in societies before the development of writing is excellent. The ability of such cultures to pass down knowledge and their own history from generation to generation depended on the development of techniques that allowed individuals to memorize astounding amounts of information. Foer recounts the discovery of the 2,500 year old mnemonic technique known as the "memory palace," by which Simonides of Ceos supposedly recalled the exact location of the victims of the collapse of a banquet hall in which he was speaking in order to guide grief-stricken relatives to the bodies of their loved ones.

In fact the passage of knowledge through writing was disparaged by such men as Socrates, who believed that witten words "could never be anything more than a cue for memory - a way of calling to mind information already in one's head," and that "writing would lead the culture down a treacherous path toward intellectual and moral decay, because even while the quantity of knowledge available to people might increase, they themselves would come to resemble empty vessels." In the 21st Century, when two-thirds of American teens don't have a clue as to when the Civil War began, and one-fifth don't know who the United States fought against in World War II, Socrates' predictions seem prescient rather than merely a quaint longing for the good old days.

Foer reveals some remarkable facts about the evolution of our attitudes toward the written word. The use of punctuation and word spacing was tried out in the 2nd Century A.D., but was ultimately abandoned for 900 years. Until Guttenberg and the invention of moveable type, books were largely regarded as aids to memory rather as primary sources of information in themselves.

Foer also does an excellent job of describing the ways in which the increasing availability of written sources has created a world in which, if one reads at all, one reads extensively rather than intensively. Breadth of knowledge replaces depth of knowledge. Lack of a foundational memory pool inside our brains results in a reduced capacity for critical thinking. Comparing what we learn with what we know, integrating new material with previously acquired and remembered material to gain new insight and understanding about the world, is sacrificed at the alter of Google and instant but unconnected, and largely uunretained, knowledge.

Likewise, Foer's exploration of the neuroscience of memory, including the stories the astonishing abilities of so-called savants, is both insightful and even touching.

It is when he tries to interweave his own experiences as he first reports on and later enters the U.S. Memory Championship competition that Foer stumbles. Foer seems to be working overtime to engage the reader in the story. To his credit, he at least partially succeeds in making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Some episodes are even laugh out loud funny. But the raw material weighs him down. Unlike recent accounts of other potentially snooze-worthy contests such as crossword puzzle competitions and spelling-bees, his compatriots in the rarified world of super-memory often come across as unlikable or just plain dull. There is no one root for except the obvious candidate, the author himself.

It is too bad that the author, who tells so many important stories that have great relevance in this age of hyper-information, chose not stick to those stories. But we are lucky that Joshua Foer has given us as much as he has in "Moonwalking With Einstein." Without the hook of his shoot-out at the memory corral, this timely and informative book might have gone largely unread by anyone.
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Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 9, 2011 10:00:55 AM PST
Very informative review. Thanks.

Larry Bachmann

Posted on Mar 9, 2011 10:03:18 AM PST
Very informative review. Thanks.

Larry Bachmann

Posted on Mar 10, 2011 6:32:34 AM PST
A great review but i would take you to task on the point that it was specifically because of the memory championship that he decided to explore this subject. Particularly the notion that only the smartest, brightest of people have the best memories. So it was a relevant device and will bring more readers into what would likely be a dry topic.

Posted on Mar 10, 2011 6:32:35 AM PST
A great review but i would take you to task on the point that it was specifically because of the memory championship that he decided to explore this subject. Particularly the notion that only the smartest, brightest of people have the best memories. So it was a relevant device and will bring more readers into what would likely be a dry topic.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 10, 2011 8:20:04 AM PST
Paul,
Point taken. I tried to cover some of that in my concluding paragraph, but probably should have made that connection more explicit in the review. Thanks for the feedback.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 10, 2011 8:21:30 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Mar 10, 2011 8:22:50 AM PST
Larry,
Thanks for the feedback and your kind words.

Posted on Mar 12, 2011 8:40:52 PM PST
Great review. Very much appreciated the points on extensive vs. intensive reading (Lincoln was said to have been the opposite, he knew a few books, but knew them very well indeed) and Socrates point on becoming an empty vessel. I absolutely feel that way myself on occasion. The answer I think is to continue to read widely, but develop at least one expertise where one reads or simply does something deeply. Terrific food for thought, thank you for taking the time to contribute.

Posted on Mar 14, 2011 10:38:15 AM PDT
Kayjo says:
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Posted on Mar 15, 2011 9:55:28 PM PDT
A well-written review but the reviewer seems to take a minor complaint and blow it out of proportion. If he had argued that there is too much about history, neuroscience and the contest, and not enough about the memory techniques themselves, then I would have understood better the assertion that the author "asks too little." Does he say too little about specific memory techniques?

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 16, 2011 1:38:16 AM PDT
David,
The point I was trying to make was this - it is precisely because the author's writing on the science and history of memory is so uniformly excellent and thought-provoking, he could have devoted the entire book to discussing this important and timely topic, trusting that he would find an audience for a thoroughly serious examination of the subject.

Instead, the author spends half the book recounting the colorful story of his competition in a memory "championship" with questionable pedigree. The author acknowledges the hucksterism engaged in by many of these so-called "memory athletes," inflates the importance of the competition, e.g., writing that it has grown from a one-day affair to an "entire weekend" (two days), and catches a so-called savant hustling himself in various incarnations (including a psychic, complete with hotline) and lying about it to the author. The characters in the competition are not as much interesting as sad, undependable (Foer's coach Ed goes to Australia during the competition after promising to be there for him), and often not particularly good sports.

So, to answer your question, I don't think has says too little about specific memory techniques. In fact, he said so much that many reviewers read "Moonwalking" as a simply a how-to guide to improve memory. I thought the book was instead an important book "about" memory. But I don't think the author trusted readers to slog through a serious book about memory without tricking it out with the much less interesting "hook" of his personal story. In that respect I think Foer underestimated his potential audience, and therefore asked to little of them.

I liked the book. I gave it four stars. But I don't think the reviewer's job is to cheerlead. Thanks for taking the time to post your comment.

Greg
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