"even if you embrace your own nerdiness..." is scrawled across the upper right corner of my card full of notes from my read of Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Are they my words or the author's? It doesn't seem to matter as the thing that drew me to this book is articulated as clearly by Foer as the thought ran through my own head. To what extent would one reveal their inner geek for cognitive gain?
"The Art and Science of Remembering Everything" reads the subtitle. I think most people would admit to wanting to improve their memory. Maybe in the practical sense of remembering car keys and appointments as I fear this book is possibly (and inappropriately) to be hyped but on another level in the sense of expanding one's intelligence or accessing one's native abilities depending upon viewpoint. When Foer visits the U.S. Memory Championship to write a piece for Salon, he is both drawn and repelled by the participants, confiding that although comfortable with his inner nerd, he is clearly not on the full-blown level of awkwardness that he is witnessing. And yet by book's end, in full fledged training for this same contest, he hilariously finds himself in an odd place.
"Not long after returning from England, I found myself sitting on a folding chair in the basement of my parents' home at 6:45 a.m., wearing underpants, earmuffs, and memory goggles, with a printout of eight hundred random digits in my lap and an image in my mind's eye of a lingerie-clad garden gnome (52632) suspended over my grandmother's kitchen table. I suddenly looked up, wondering - remarkably, for the first time - what in the world I was doing with myself."
What I have described so far is just the engaging frame of an examination of what happens in a world where memory has migrated from the interior to the exterior. Where we access information not from our own minds but from the printed word, the computer screen, the phone in hand. Pre-Gutenberg humanity had the ability to preserve memory through an oral tradition slowly lost to us as print became more accessible and literacy rates rose, but Foer is quick to illustrate that those structures for memorization from the ancient Greeks and others are still accessible but only practiced by those he describes as the attendees of a Weird Al Yankovic concert.
The book wanders as effortlessly as great dinner conversation through Foer's training and the subculture of mental athletes right alongside often astute observations about the state of education as it skirts the value of memory and loses a core knowledge base in favor of amorphously defined higher level thinking objectives, savants, linguistics, the occasional superficiality of our reading, a random access indexing system and more. It is fascinating. Quite the page turner. But so over-archingly broad that one feels he could have written for years and not arrived at a satisfactory conclusion. Both because there is not one and because the subject is unwieldy in its scope.
Thankfully, the structure imposed by the actual championship competitions rein in the ever-expanding but fun conversation Foer brings to the table. This book is quietly witty and engaging and will have you secretly indulging your own geek fantasies whether those be memorizing countless digits of pi or all of Shakespeare's sonnets. And musing about how both remembering and forgetting define our uniqueness, our humanity.