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:
- “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.
- Many human functions depend on memory—humor, aha moments, common culture.
- “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.”
- Take a stand against forgetfulness. Remember the wisdom of the ancients—those who never published a word—Socrates, for example.
- 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?