Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein: A Year-of-Memorizing Memoir

Meet Joshua Foer, a 28-year-old whose first book, Moonwalking with Einstein, reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s books–quirky, researched subjects with personal and other anecdotes sprinkled generously through out. Moonwalking actually fits another memoir subcategory: the year-of-memoir. In these memoirs the author sets aside a year to do something and then details the results. Examples abound–The Happiness Project, The Year of Living Biblically, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Foer spent more than two years researching and writing his book even though his experience on the memory circuit only lasted one. He controls both the subject and the structure of his memoir with the same kind of precision and passion he used to imagine Einstein moonwalking in one of his “memory palaces.”

For a very young author with a journalist background, Foers handles the “long form” of the memoir very well.  He weaves the story of his year-long adventure as a memory competititor, complete with eccentric “mental athlete” characters, along with the latest neuroscience reseach and historical discussions of classical Greece. Moonwalking with Einstein both entertains and educates in memorable ways.

The book’s publication was well-timed for me, since I am preparing for a speech on “The Purpose of Memory” and Foer’s book has provided a few really provocative ideas. For me, his story about becoming the world memory champion, while well-told, held less fascination than his occasional philosophical and historical inquiries. Here are five points of his extracted from my notes:

  1. “We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory.” Kindle 4652.
  2. Many human functions depend on memory—humor, aha moments, common culture.
  3. “Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character.”
  4. Take a stand against forgetfulness. Remember the wisdom of the ancients—those who never published a word—Socrates, for example.
  5. Recover some of the attention to memory that the ancients practiced. Memorize poetry! There is wisdom in some of the old-school emphasis on memorization.

These are some of the ideas in the book. What do you think of them?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Kathleen Friesen on April 4, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Thank you for this review. Memory continues to be a provocative subject for me. This book is my Kindle queue; I’m currently reading, “The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories.”

    Here’s my question: What part do relationships and social media play in memory? Socrates memories were oral shared and only “stored” by virtue of relationships. In 2011, the world-wide-web has created a nonlinear, shared memory experience through hyperlinked stories, data, blog posts, social media sites, etc.

    I’m exploring and looking forward to continuing the dialogue.

    • shirleyhs on April 4, 2011 at 5:59 pm

      Kathleen, I too am deeply interested in this subject. I love social media, but I also am in introvert who needs quiet, reflection, and abiding, rather than fleeting, words and images.

      Inner memory and outer memory, personal and collective. High tech and low tech. These are some of the categories I am using at the moment.

      Let’s keep the conversation going!


      Sent from my iPhone

  2. Jerry Waxler on April 5, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    The older I get, the more I respect memory, not just because mine is fading (I hope it’s not), and not only because I have more and more stuff to store, but simply because of my growing respect for its importance. Those old classicists were onto a good thing when they made kids memorize poems. But I missed that. Maybe reading the book will give me a few strategies that can help me hold on to this precious mental capacity.


  3. shirleyhs on April 5, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    Jerry, someone whose blog focuses on Memory Writers, will definitely need to check out Joshua Foer’s book. He has some practical tips, though there are better ones on YouTube. Try searching on “memory places” and “how to remember.”

    His connection to memoir is through story telling rather than the memory issues related to the construction of the past. But he has done a lot of work, and I am confident you will find it useful.

  4. Lanie Tankard on April 6, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    I had heard about this book, and your thought-provoking review makes me want to read it. I’m particularly interested in what triggers memories. Thanks, Shirley!

  5. shirleyhs on April 6, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Thanks, Lanie. I noticed, when rereading the post, that I forgot a few sentences of text or accidentally erased them, leaving a nasty dangling modifier. That must have been a painful read for a great editor like you. Sorry about that.

    I think one of the best chapters I have ever read on what triggers memory is contained in A Natural History of the Senses–the chapter on smell. I blogged about this association between smell and memory here:

  6. Richard Gilbert on April 12, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    This book sounds fantastic. One thing I have found in using memory in writing my memoir is that writing brings much back. On the other hand, I usually end up with my memory–those images we call memories–transferred to the page. Now what happened is more on the page than in my mind. A real irony.

    • shirleyhs on April 13, 2011 at 1:28 am

      > > I have heard others say the same thing, Richard, about losing their > memories by writing them down. I find that fascinating. Socrates seemed to > understand the potential for this kind of loss. He was adamantly opposed to > writing for many reasons, but this might well have been one of them. He > trusted the mind more than he trusted the pen. We take writing so much for > granted; we forget that once upon a time all stories were oral. >


      > URL : > Whois :

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