Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein – by Joshua Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein

For years I have been worried about losing my memory. I used to be able to recall the phone numbers of all my friends. Dates and events seemed to be forever ingrained in memory. Now, I can’t remember what I had for dinner yesterday. But worse, recently I could not remember the name of the Vice President of the United States (Joe Biden). I could picture his face clearly. I just could not recall the name. Also, I could not think of the name of the large lake by Reno, between Nevada and California (Lake Tahoe). I had to look up the name of the model of the full-sized Nissan car (Altima).

Moonwalking with Einstein is about memory. It digs deep into our ancestral history and explains how memory works, why we seem to be able to memorize some things forever, and others elude us completely.

Foer was a young journalist covering the elusive mental sport of memorizers. These are people who can memorize a deck of cards in less than two minutes, and then recall it backwards or forwards without error. They can memorize long strings of random digits, like about 20,000 digits of Pi. When Foer got to know these “mental athletes” he became interested in their mental gymnastics and he learned the various mnemonic tricks and techniques they used to perform these feats. He came to the conclusion that anyone could learn how to do that, so he embarked on a journey to become a mental athlete himself.

Coached by the young British mental athlete Ed Cooke, he quickly learned the tricks and within a year, entered the U.S. National Championship – and promptly won.

If you want to learn how memory works, and how such incredible feats are performed, Moonwalking with Einstein is a perfect book for that.

I thoroughly enjoyed getting insight into the obscure world of the sport memorizers, learning of the personal interactions of Foer with famous savants. He met and interviewed Kim Peeks, who was the real-life model for the Rainman character in the Dustin Hoffman movie. He also met and worked with Daniel Tammet, whose books I have also enjoyed. He suspects that Tammet is not actually a savant, which is what he poses as, but an exceptionally effective mnemonic athlete; but this is the subject for another post entirely.

The mnemonic adventures of Foer have inspired me to dust off my own mnemonic skills. I picked out an old poem I memorized in German class when I was 14. I still remember a lot of it and I have committed to refresh this poem so I can recite it perfectly. Now, for memorizing a deck of cards in two minutes….

Rating: ***