Review: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
Working in London has allowed me many a random celebrity sighting. Those have ranged from the political (the Deputy Prime Minister’s wife and Princess Anne, a more minor royal) to the clerical (former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams), via plenty of lower-level film and literary stars. Seeing Kevin Spacey and his dog exiting South London’s fabulous Konditor & Cook bakery was probably my most exciting celebrity viewing (he’s Artistic Director at the Old Vic theatre, just around the corner), followed by spotting Julian Barnes and his late wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh, at a John Irving lecture in 2008. From there it gets distinctly B-rate: novelist Sarah Waters also attending Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood book launch event in 2009; actor John Dagleish (I know him as Alf Arliss in the Lark Rise to Candleford TV series) on the steps outside the Southbank Centre; and historian and commentator Simon Schama berating a drunk at Waterloo station.
But one of my favorite encounters, for its pure unexpectedness and for my self-righteous feeling of being one of the only people who would have recognized him and appreciated seeing him, came in May 2011 as my husband and I were awaiting a flight out to America, sitting in the Terminal 5 lounge at Heathrow airport. The man across from us was joined by Joshua Foer – I would have recognized him anyway, but it was confirmed for me when the guy greeted him with “Hey, Josh!” and they proceeded to speak in American accents about some high-tech science concepts. I had heard of Joshua Foer’s upcoming book and seen his photograph through some publicity for it, so I knew of him as an author in his own right and not just, as with most people, for his connection to two terrific novelists: he’s the little brother of Jonathan Safran Foer and brother-in-law of Nicole Krauss.
In his first book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2012), Foer delves into the world of memory championships, first as a science journalist looking for an interesting story, then as a participant. Within one year, practicing only on average half an hour each day, Foer became the 2006 U.S. Memory Champion. He seems to derive from his experience a sort of reassuring Everyman philosophy: memory champions are made, not born, and there is no such thing as a photographic memory; indeed, anyone could match or exceed his achievement if they only put their mind to it.
In fact, in what is a surprisingly uncharitable chapter, he debunks the idea that some people are predisposed to memory feats through Asperger’s syndrome and/or savantism by questioning the validity of Daniel Tammet’s experience. Pointing to inconsistencies in Tammet’s accounts of his own thinking methods, Foer posits that Tammet is in fact using the same mnemonic techniques as any other memory champion. I felt a bit uneasy reading this chapter; it is as if Foer feels compelled to take Tammet down a peg, when instead he could have just left the guy alone. Or, if he felt he needed to plant a note of suspicion, he should have just left it at that – one rhetorical question at the end of a few paragraphs of discussion, rather than a whole chapter of snarky interrogation.
In spite of that one awkward chapter, Moonwalking with Einstein is a very enjoyable read, even rollicking at times. The average reader can just about grasp the tricks memory champions employ to remember sequences of words, numbers or playing cards. The first step is to establish a fund of “memory palaces” in which to place images. You can start with the house where you grew up, schools you attended, local museums or other buildings you know well. Once you get to the big leagues, the quantities of information to remember are so large that you need to expand your repertoire of memory palaces, often by visiting new places with striking architecture, so that you have up to 100 buildings you can tour at will – in your mind.
The next step is to assign each playing card from a deck, or each pair of digits from 00 to 99, a memorable image, using the PAO (Person, Action, Object) method. The more outrageous the image, the better. Then when you start to combine cards or numbers in a particular sequence, you need to link the images through a narrative or series of actions (case in point: “moonwalking with Einstein,” Foer’s title picture). Again, the more preposterous (or lewd) you can make the combinations, the better. By situating all these ridiculous activities along a logical route through one of your memory palaces, you anchor each scene to somewhere you already know well. The idea is that when the time comes to recreate the sequence (that is, to recite the order of a deck of cards, or a given list of numbers and words), you can simply take a mental tour back through your palace and say what you see. As Foer and others assert, this is more a test of creativity than of memory. What is difficult to fathom is the speed of inventiveness required: at one point Foer broke the U.S. record by memorizing a deck of cards in just over one minute and 40 seconds.
Moonwalking with Einstein may remind you most of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010); both are zippy, self-deprecating tours through offbeat obsessions, written by the kind of young, clever hipsters you can imagine succeeding at anything they try. I may be envious of Foer’s literary pedigree and the fact that he’s a published author and only a year older than me, but I don’t think what he’s done is unattainable. When he set off on this lark, he was still living in his parents’ basement, procrastinating on magazine deadlines. If he could turn the story of a nerdy enterprise into a delightful book, surely anyone can?
[News flash! Columbia Pictures bought the rights to Moonwalking with Einstein in 2011 and a movie is now in development, with a projected release date of 2014. It is being classed as a comedy, not a documentary. It is hard to imagine precisely how this will work; perhaps, like The Big Year did with competitive birdwatching, the Moonwalking with Einstein movie will take inspiration from a bizarre hobby but largely develop its own plot.]