Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein


“If you want to live a memorable life,you have to be the kind of person who remembers to remember.”

This week's read, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, was not what I expected.

“I don’t think I’m an exceptionally bad reader. I suspect that many people, maybe even most, are like me. We read and read and read, and we forget and forget and forget. So why do we bother?"

I had heard this was a book about cultivating memory, so I anticipated to find something akin to an instructional manual. I can't remember who told me to read this (hello irony), but I had multiple exclamation points indicating whoever it was loved the story, so I was in!

Obviously, my memory isn't dependable, so I thought I could use the tips. However, what I discovered was page for page, there weren't that many helpful tips.

Fortunately, what I discovered in the narrative was something much better; the journey is much more interesting than a "how to" manual.

"The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it.”

The story begins when a reporter, Joshua Foer, gets lost in a Google rabbit hole looking for the smartest person alive. What he discovers, in a way that only ridiculous link clicking could explain, is while "smart" is tough to define, there's an entire subculture of people who specialize in memorizing vast amounts of random information. (Think binary code, the order of a deck of cards, digits in pi, blah, blah, blah)

Foer decides to take a closer look at this group of specialists and is soon talked into studying for memory competitions. In doing so, Foer learns techniques for learning vast amounts of data. The tricks he describes actually work (they even came in handy this week as I helped my daughter study for a social studies exam!) and Foer's journey into the world of memory competitions is strangely interesting.

However, what's more fascinating is his research into how the mind works and what happens when memory is lost. For instance, there's a gentleman in San Diego, EP, who in 1992 came down with mild flu-like symptoms only to discover a virus had cored a couple of holes in in his brain. As a result, EP could only recall his most recent thoughts and memories from 50 years prior. Foer spent time with EP and the story and its implications is wildly fascinating.

“A meaningful relationship between two people cannot sustain itself only in the present tense.”

Foer offers arguments and insights about what's happening to our brains since modern society is largely outsourcing our memory - keeping knowledge in hard drives, on our phones, in places ANY places other than our heads. Foer lays out what's lost and what's at risk.  This extended quote gives probably the best summary of his findings.

“How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember...No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory...Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character. "

I'm not entirely sure how to process what I've learned in this book, particularly because I am drawn toward breadth rather than depth of information. If you tackle this book, I think you'll find plenty of profound thoughts to process and consider. I'm still working through the implications.

“Our lives are the sum of our memories. How much are we willing to lose from our already short lives by … not paying attention?”

If the only nugget to stick is to pay attention, it's worth the read!