Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Image of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Release Date: 
February 27, 2012
Penguin Books
Reviewed by: 

If, like presidential elections, bestsellers were determined by choosing the person that we would most like to have a beer with, Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, would likely find himself atop every list in the land, because it is impossible to dip into the pages of this surprisingly intriguing book and not come away charmed by the author’s self-effacing wit or by his architectural sentence structures.

Like a good movie (and, film producers take note: Those looking for the next project for Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Cera, or James Franco should get out their checkbooks now, as Moonwalking could well be the X-chromosome answer to Julie and Julia, especially if the supporting cast of misfit toys known as “Memory Athletes” is as well cast as it should be), the book opens at the last moments of the finals of the 2006 U.S. Memory Championship, at which our author finds himself vying against the memory world’s raging bull, Ram Kolli (“an unshaven 25-year old business consultant from Richmond, Virginia”), the reigning U.S. memory champion.

Take in the moment: Both men wear earplugs to screen out sound to help them concentrate. Over those earplugs, both wear “industrial-strength earmuffs that look like they belong on an aircraft carrier deckhand (because in the heat of a memory competition, there is on such thing as deaf enough).”

Contestant’s eyes are closed. Flash photography is forbidden. The lone camera is from one of the country’s least-watched networks, which, along with two color commentators, is bringing the match to hundreds, perhaps thousands of viewers nationwide. The air is dense with tension as the two competitors attempt, in their mind’s eyes, to recall exactly the order of two shuffled decks of playing cards that they have had to commit to memory. All that stands between these two men and the memory trophy (“a kitschy two-tiered trophy consisting of a silver hand with gold nail polish brandishing a royal flush, and, in a patriotic flourish, three bald eagles perched just below”) is this pile of 104 playing cards remembered in their proper order…

The book then jumps backward from this “How did I get here?” moment to the year before and to a snowy highway in central Pennsylvania, a locale that would rather interestingly lead our author to the memory championship and, ultimately, to this book.

Early on, Mr. Foer assures his readers that, before undertaking training in memory sport, before learning to build “Memory Palaces” in his mind, he was operating with the same spotty memory that most of us trip along through life with. Mr. Foer writes:

“My own memory was average at best. Among the things I regularly forgot: where I put my car keys (where I put my car, for that matter); the food in the oven; that it’s “its” and not “it’s”; my girlfriend’s birthday; our anniversary; Valentine’s Day; the clearance of the doorway to my parents’ cellar (ouch); my friend’s phone numbers; why I just opened the fridge; to plug in my cell phone; the name of the President Bush’s chief of staff; the order of the New Jersey Turnpike rest stops; which year the Redskins last won the Super Bowl; to put the toilet seat down.”

Having read Moonwalking with Einstein (the rather weak title is a reference to the sort of image that one uses in emblazoning an individual memory onto one’s brain), the following are the things that the reader will remember from the book:

S, whose mind stored everything, every scrap and detail that he had ever seen, touched, tasted, smelled or heard, all stored in an endless number of mental file cabinets, all stored linearly for instantaneous retrieval—the man with the perfect memory, who yearned for nothing more than to learn how to forget; EP, whose brain had been literally hollowed out in 1992 by the herpes virus (“Without a memory, EP has fallen completely out of time . . . Trapped in this limbo of an eternal present, between a past he can’t remember and a future he can’t contemplate, he lives a sedentary life, completely free of worry.”); the improbable importance of the Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School; the “Divine Camillo” and his Theater of Memory; and the mad scientist who dedicated the last ten years of his lie to “lifelogging,” recording every detail with digital cameras (and whose life, so far, takes up just 170 gigabytes of memory).

What the reader also takes with him and will long remember is the skill with which Joshua Foer relates his story, and his gift for rendering fully rounded characters and any number of hearty laughs, while still doling out liberal amounts of scientific information on how memory works and why our retention of some degree of memory skills is still of vital importance, even in the age of the computer—a rarity in a book that might easily have been rendered unreadable in the hands of a writer with lesser gifts.

Walking us through a year in his life, in which he moved from being a mere memory novice with an hour to kill in a small Pennsylvania town to being the (SPOILER ALERT!) U.S. Memory Champion, Mr. Foer’s throwaway jokes are better than the best that most have to offer. (Speaking of his own numb-minded memory skills, he speaks of himself reciting at his own bar mitzvah as being “a parrot in a yarmulke.”) Better, he blends his journalist’s eye with an ear for dialogue that any novelist would envy, to present his reader with this rich, ripe volume.

The secret of Moonwalking is the level to which the author actually breaks the cardinal rule of journalism and becomes emotionally involved with his topic. At the first memory championship he visits, he is befriended by Ed Cooke, the young British memory champion who will become his mentor (think Yoda in Star Wars or of Burgess Meredith as “Mickey” in the Rocky films and you get the idea) in his own quest for the memory crown. And it is Mr. Foer’s increasingly intense desire to transition from objective observer to subjective competitor (think of George Plimpton in Paper Lion and you get the idea) that gives his book much of its insight and bite.

But it is this same intensity and subjectivity of interest that, in the course of one slim chapter, nearly unravels all that has come before.

The chapter called “The Little Rain Man in All of Us,” is positioned about two-thirds of the way through the book, precisely at the point at which the narrative is just beginning to drag, and the reader is beginning to wish that we could move on, at last, to the memory championship.

Mr. Foer, instead, inserts 26 pages on Daniel Tammer, the subject of a documentary called Brainman and the author of a bestselling book entitled Born on a Blue Day. Something in Tammer’s story—that his brain “had been altered by an epileptic seizure he suffered as a toddler,” and that, as a result, he was transformed into some sort of savant who could perform mighty feats of memory—triggers the Nancy Drew mode in our author’s own, leading to a smack-down of Oprah/James Frey proportions, in which Mr. Foer uncovers the terrible truth that perhaps Tammer is nothing more than a memory athlete, who, realizing that he is not good enough to win a championship fair and square, instead creates a new persona—one that he hopes will lead him to success by using his standard memorization skills while insisting that, for all intents and purposes, his is a mutated brain.

But instead of standing with Mr. Foer as he rips away the curtain, behind which the “world’s most famous savant” seems like a sad little con, the reader begins to question the author’s motive—the why of his interest in memory sport and his passionate interest in it. It becomes a not a question of whether or not our author has drunk the Kool Aid, but just how much of it he has drunk.

On page 232 of the text, Joshua Foer writes, “For some time, I agonized over whether to include Daniel in this book.” The reader sighs on reading this and says, “Joshua, if you have to ask . . .”

Without that sore-thumb of a chapter, Moonwalking with Einstein would be a nearly perfect thing, a book that combines a skillful, literate look into how memory functions, and why it is so very important to us individually and culturally with a lush, sweet coating of its setting—a world in which intelligence, diligence and dogged determination are treasured above all else. And a world in which the thing most desired is, like the Matese Falcon, the stuff that dreams are made of.

But the choice was made. And in that chapter, Joshua Foer tells us more about himself than he does about the fake savant. He shows himself down to his core—his intelligent, diligent and doggedly determined heart. And shows that, in the month before his memory challenge in 2006, he had reached the point at which he could not look away from such a flagrant disregard for all that he had himself so heartily embraced.

The reader wonders, however, what he thinks about it now.