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Cover graphic for Moonwalking with Einstein

 

Title: Moonwalking with Einstein

Author: Joshua Foer

Publisher: Penguin

Copyright: 2011

ISBN13: 978-0-143-12053-7

Length: 307

Price: $16.00

Rating: 91%

I purchased this book for personal use.

I enjoy participatory journalism, where a writer becomes part of the event they're covering. In Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer details how he started research for an article on the USA Memory Championships and ended up winning the event the following year.

Moonwalking with Einstein follows a familiar alternating pattern, where the author switches between chapters that chronicle his journey and those that explore related material. As an example, Foer introduces the Memory Palace, a foundational mnemoic technique which has been in use since at least the 5th century BCE, in his opening paragraph. He then describes the USA Memory Championships he covered for Slate magazine and reveals how he became interested enough in the memory arts to enter the competition the following year.

As you might imagine, the world of memory artists is filled with characters. From the eight-time world champion Dominic O'Brien to the skilled and exceptionally wealthy popularizer Tony Buzan, you'll find individuals with varying motivations, abilities, and social skills. If you've read Searching for Bobby Fischer, which is about the development of youth chess player Joshua Waitzkin; Word Freak about Scrabble players (also participatory journalism); Babel No More about polyglots (reviewed elsewhere on this site); or watched the crossword puzzle solving documentary Wordplay, you'll recognize the range of characters who inhabit the scenes. Even so, Foer goes rather light on character development for all but the most important individuals, choosing instead to focus on the process of developing one's memory and summarizing the relevant scientific research.

I applaud Foer's decision to emphasize the process and science behind memory over characterization. I'm tired of books that allegedly explore a subject but do little more than describe the exploits of a set of supposedly compelling characters from the group. It's the reality television version of journalism and I have little use for it. My friends are smart, funny, and engaging, so I don't need to learn more about "interesting" people doing an activity. Foer has the decided advantage of spending significant time in the belly of the beast, so he speaks as both a participant and an analyst. That he was so successful on the national stage (and achieved a respectable result at the World Memory Championship) bolsters his credibility immensely.

Where the author does turn his attention to the personalities of the field, he does so effectively. His descriptions of his interactions with Tony Buzan are fun to read, as is his conversation with Buzan's chauffeur. The driver described Buzan's books, which have been released regularly for many years, as "same meat, different gravy". Buzan's tactics remind me of American memory expert Harry Lorayne, whose power learning system and array of memory books have covered essentially the same ground for decades.

Foer takes a rather more pointed approach in his coverage of Daniel Tammet, the subject of the documentary Brainman, an obvious reference to the title of the Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise movie Rain Man. In Rain Man, Hoffman played a character based on Kim Peek, a savant with an incredible natural memory. Daniel Tammet is an individual who claims to have Asperger's Syndrome but has learned to adapt socially without losing his enhanced cognitive skills. In the chapter on savants, Foer reveals that Daniel Tammet was born Daniel Corey and, competing under his original name, finished fourth in the World Memory Championship in 2000. He changed his name in 2001. Foer's investigation rounds out this section of the book nicely and is reminiscent of some of the scientific analyses of alleged psychic phenomena in the 1970s and 1980s.

I recommend Moonwalking with Einstein without reservation. It's a tale well told by a young writer who took up the mantle of participatory journalism with gusto.

 

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media; he has also created over a dozen online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.

 

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