Sunday, February 20, 2022

REVIEW: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (nonfiction audiobook) by Joshua Foer, narrated by Mike Chamberlain

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is nonfiction. I listened to the audiobook via OverDrive.


Because the title of this book has apparently confused some people: this is not about Einstein. The title is referring to the memorization technique Foer learned, which involves populating a "memory palace" with bizarre and therefore memorable imagery that one has in some way linked to the less memorable information one wants to memorize.

I listened to the audiobook, so apologies if I have some of the details wrong. If I remember right, this book begins with Foer sitting in on a memory competition for an article he was writing. After the event, he spoke to one of the participants, who told him that, with enough training in the right techniques, anyone could become a memory champion. Foer was initially unconvinced but willing to give it a shot.

This book's overall framework is Foer's own memory journey from "regular guy" to competitor in the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship, but along the way he writes about the history of memorization techniques, the science of memory and learning, the world of memory championship competitors, why supposedly photographic memories don't exist, and more.

Although this was often a fascinating book, it also had some incredibly annoying and misogynistic sections. For example, Foer's mentor was part of the KL7, a "secret" society of memorizers who came across like pickup artists and stereotypical frat brothers. I forget the exact details, but joining the KL7 involved a combination of beer drinking, successful card memorization, and kissing a nearby woman. Several of the members of KL7 seemed to have learned memorization techniques primarily so they could impress women who might otherwise be put off by their behavior, lack of jobs, etc. Even Foer admitted that he got a little weird during his memory improvement journey, essentially living in his parents' basement as he practiced memorization techniques for hours and wore blinders while staring at cards and random numbers.

Foer spent so much time writing about the KL7 members and similar guys that, for a while there, it sounded like the world of memory championships was composed entirely of men. Even the techniques they employed seemed very oriented towards men - the secret of the "memory palace" memorization method, for example, involved making one's mental images as funny and/or raunchy as possible (be prepared for a heavy amount of male-gaze aspects in Foer's descriptions of his own mental imagery and the imagery he suggests readers picture when trying out the technique themselves). The few times Foer wrote about female memory championship competitors, my brain latched onto them like a traveler in the desert who's just come across on oasis. 

Unfortunately, those might as well have been mirages, because Foer never spent much time on them, even when the tantalizing bits of information he included seemed to contradict what he'd written about the KL7 members' memorization techniques. For example, rather than linking the poetry she needed to memorize to particularly memorable imagery, one female memory championship competitor told Foer that her technique involved deeply understanding the poem and feeling its emotions. I really wish Foer had explored that a bit more.

I found many of the topics the book covered to be interesting, which somewhat made up for the company Foer kept while he was researching and studying memory. It also helped that I listened to the audiobook version, so there were times I could just tune out or speed through the parts that irked me so that I could get back to the more interesting stuff.

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