I decided to push this book to the first selection of books to read for the year, in hopes that it might help my memory improve at the start of the year. While it’s not made me a memory champ extraordinaire, I can say I did learn some tips that I think, with practice, can improve my overall memory skills. Yet, this book is not a a memory how-to.
In Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, science journalist (then working with Discover magazine) Joshua Foer tells his journey writing about the U.S. Memory Championship to one year later being a contestant trying to win. (Which, he did.) With the championship as his bookends, Foer covers everything inbetween, from how he got from point observer to winner, and from the science of human memory and mnemonics, past and present.
For those who are looking for tools to improve memory, the discussion of the “memory palace” will certainly be a fascinating aspect of the book. Using this technique, I can still remember the random first five items of the grocery list Foer was asked to memorize. This is certainly not a novel concept and is sometimes discussed in psychology textbooks and others, but I found Foer’s explanation and exploration of this fascinating. The history of the memory palace dates back to ancient Greek and Roman texts, and pops up throughout history all the way up to the memory competitions Joshua Foer observed and eventually competed in.
Foer also does an excellent job of highlight how little we value memory, contrasted with it once being held as one of the highest virtues. He explores our contemporary ability to make use of both externalized and internalized memory, not surprisingly using the computer as illustrative of this modern phenomenon.
This book also explores an interesting aspect of memorization that we might not immediately think from today’s isolated era of viewing memory–the moral side of memorization. Morality enters the picture, because of the memory mnemonics used for attaching meaning to otherwise mundane texts. Such mnemonics include picturing crass and obscene images in order to make the words and sentences more memorable, from ancient monks memorizing texts, to current junior high students trying to remember dates and names. Morality is also tied to memory in the way that memory was elevated as one of the highest virtues, particularly in the time prior to the advent of the printing press and subsequent broader availability of books. Even before that, as men began to write down others teachings and sayings, men like Socrates protested in fear that writing would be the end of the high virtue of memory as he knew it. (Of course, if no one had written this down, we probably would never have heard of Cicero.)
As a parent in the beginning phases of educating my children, and as someone who has studied a little bit of the classical model of education, I found that there was a lot of application. Specifically, there was insight into the classical style of education (a great part of the discussion is given to ancient classical learning, although the book itself does not make the direct tie to the current classical model) and to education, in general. I felt like this book helped redeem some of the aspects of the classical model that I’d previously looked at more skeptically, as well as provided ideas for making memorization fun and truly beneficial.
Foer also gives a helpful discussion on how reading has changes as memory has changed (and vice versa).
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