Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

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Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.

Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer

While I love to read and add to this blog, my day job is to churn out technical documents at a software company. I mean, it involves more creativity and planning than it sounds: structuring content, researching new features, and figuring out how to reuse my existing content as efficiently as possible. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I certainly enjoy it. There are times when the technical aspect of my job overwhelms me, which can be distressing – I’m often surrounded by people who assume my technical knowledge is beyond what it actually is.

I was once bemoaning this to my boyfriend, especially the level of concentration it takes me to understand technical concepts, and how it makes me feel stupid at times. He then insisted that I wasn’t stupid at all, and pointed out my sense of memory as an example. It surprised me – I’m aware that I have a good memory (friends often count on me to remember where we had brunch that time, and I have an uncanny ability to recall which actors starred in which movies), but I’d never counted that as a form of intelligence. It’s just been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember. Faces, names, movie titles, state capitals. While I have a “naturally” good memory, I also am obsessed with keeping track of things: through my journaling, photographs, and of course, this blog.

I’ve been trying to read more non-fiction lately, and this book seemed like a good fit for me. Moonwalking with Einstein, despite its misleading and pseudo-catchy title, is about memory and memorization. The book covers the mental athletes who participate in the World Memory Championships (yes, that’s a thing) by memorizing as much information as possible in a given amount of time, scientific cases of people with impaired and extraordinary memories, and Joshua Foer’s own journey to becoming the American memory champion.

I found most of the ideas presented by the book fascinating, although the book itself tends to be repetitive. For example, one key tactic to becoming a memory champion is to attach as vulgar and/or ridiculous (and therefore memorable) images to whatever needs to be memorized. In my opinion, Foer spends an inordinate amount of time detailing these ludicrous images. After a while, I didn’t find them entertaining and they were just bothersome to read through. Also, while I understand that including Foer’s own mastery of memory techniques serves to prove that training one’s memory is an achievable goal for the average reader, I wasn’t too interested in the author’s journey. There were also times when his somewhat mocking attitude towards the mental athletes (and their lack of fashion sense, or other oddities) felt mean and unnecessarily judgmental.

Other than the memory techniques, I was most interested in the cases of extraordinary and impaired memories that Foer researched. He had the opportunity to speak with Kim Peek, the real life inspiration for Rain Man. I watched Rain Man while in elementary school, and I’d never known that Dustin Hoffman’s character had been inspired by a real person, so that was interesting to read about. The historical perspective on memory was interesting as well, to consider that memorization was generally considered a trainable and valuable skill rather than a meaningless exercise for students.

YES OR NO?: YES, with some reservations. There are times that Moonwalking with Einstein feels like an overly long New Yorker piece (with not quite the same quality of writing), but mostly, it’s an entertaining ride. I read this book in about five days, which I think is an ideal amount of time. There would definitely be some information overload if tackling it in one or two days.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

  1. I have this book and it is one I’d like to read. I picked it up because I have poor memory and was curious about how people train for that memory championship. I’m great at recalling events from long ago, but my short-term memory is often pretty crappy.
    I also didn’t know that Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man was based on a real person.

  2. Thanks for the honesty of your review. I’d thought about buying this after hearing the author on a podcast. Now I think I will wait and see if I can get a second hand copy at some point.

    Sometimes knowing what not to buy is as helpful as a glowing recommendation.

    1. What podcast would that be? I’m interested in checking it out (although I imagine it might be a bit repetitive if I’ve already read the book). I picked this up at the library so maybe that’d be a good option for you as well 🙂

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