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Friday, March 16, 2012

Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein is the story of the year Joshua Foer spent training to be a mental athlete for the U.S. Memory Championship.

If you are looking for a book that teaches memory techniques, this is not it.  The book does mention and briefly describe some of the best known mnemonic techniques, but the focus is on the world of the competitors.  And what a quirky bunch they are!  Although Foer (and the other memory competitors) all insist they don't have special abilities, you might notice the universities several of them attended.  I suspect that, even though not all competitors had that kind of privileged educational background--they probably could have if they could have afforded or desired it.  Just sayin'

Foer  includes some excellent information about the history of mnemonics and the individuals who used it to their benefit, some of which you will probably be familiar with.    He includes information about interesting anomalies like the "Rain Man" and "S" who remember everything without using any techniques at all, whose brains are simply able to instantly recall information.  Foer discusses the Major method and memory palaces, useful memory tools.  And he emphasizes the importance of paying attention.

The focus of the book, however, is the curious world of the "mental athlete" -- those individuals who devote their lives to memorization in preparation for various national and international contests.

Remembering (in the way that these individuals do) is hard work.  The comparison can be made to Olympic hopefuls and their strenuous training; mental athletes spend hours each day in practice.  While it is true that most of the information memorized is completely useless (unless you plan on counting cards at a casino or entertaining people with parlor tricks),  Foer points out that much of the skill and effort in many sports serves no purpose in everyday life.  People like challenges; some prefer physical, some mental challenges.  The memory champions train hard and compete with gusto.

I enjoyed the book and Foer's easy, companionable writing style.  Following him through his introduction in his journalistic capacity to the world of memory competitions, his increasing curiosity about the techniques and the people involved, his first attempts to see what he could accomplish using the techniques, and finally,  his decision to compete in the USA Memory Championship provided an interesting journey.

Learning about the history, the psychology, and the methodology of the art of memory kept me involved and interested.  Even knowing that most of the mental athletes have the same difficulties that everyone else has in occasionally being unable to find their car keys doesn't detract from the idea that we all could make use of some of the techniques if we were willing to make the effort.

Most of us would not be interested in memorizing several decks of cards in a limited time or remembering long lists of random numbers, but remembering names and faces with more ease would be a useful goal, and students would certainly love to be able to remember dates, lists, and other possible exam information with less effort.

One thing that I did not like was Foer's snide, snarky remarks about Tony Buzan.  I'd never heard of the man before, but he is an established icon in the memory world, and  Foer's attitude toward Buzan was so mean-spirited that it put me off.  I was a little embarrassed for him, and his remarks did more damage to himself than to Buzan.

Final analysis-- in spite of the unfortunate sections dealing with Tony Buzan, I did enjoy the book.  While Moonwalking with Einstein does not really teach mnemonic techniques it give a nice overview, and if you want to do further research, the book gives names and titles, not only throughout the chapters, but in an extensive bibliography.

Nonfiction.  2011.  297 pages including bibliography.


  1. I enjoyed Foer's breezy writing style too. Aren't the mental athletes a quirky interesting bunch? I suspect though the same could be said about readers or other groups of people who do "geeky" things :)

  2. I liked that this book was a bit of a starting off point for future researching. :)

  3. Stefanie - :) They work and play hard, don't they? It is a creative activity, remembering the way they do, and really creative people are often a little off the beaten path.

    Kailana - Yes, Foer manages to arouse the curiosity and provide sources for further research!

  4. I liked this book a lot as well (

    I experimented with the “mem­ory palace” technique and I'm glad to say it worked.

  5. Oh, yes, the techniques work and can be useful for a number of things! Even those of us who have no intention of performing the remarkable feats of memory that the competitors accomplish, the techniques are good practice.

    I want to be able to go the library and remember the books and authors that are on the lists that I forgot to bring me with me.

  6. I saw this cover a few days ago and thought it looked interesting even though I didn't know its subject matter. Now I look forward to reading it.

    I used mnemonics to help my study skills students. I had a hard time getting them to think up ways to link information but when I provided a funny picture for them they usually remembered it. Also used the techniques with my science students - it made memorizing much easier, and even fun, for them.

    Looking forward to reading this.

  7. :) Mnemonics is a wonderful tool for students! The funny images remain much longer than abstract words, don't they?