04 March 2011

Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

Title: Moonwalking with Einstein
Author: Joshua Foer
Publisher/Year: Penguin / 2011
Date Finished: 2 March 2011
Source/Format: Review Copy / Print

Buy | Borrow | Accept | Avoid

The Short and Sweet of It
Foer chronicles his foray into the world of memory in this intelligent and fun book. The perfect combination of the personal and the academic, Moonwalking with Einstein had me completely hooked.

A Bit of a Ramble
Intelligent. Fun. Insightful. Funny. Inventive. Fabulous. And a host of other adjectives that start with I and F. I loved this one enough to actually recommend it to my husband, very very much a non-reader and definitely a non-reader of non-fiction. It's on his list for next winter (one book a year people. It's sad.) (Don't tell him I said that.)

My first brush with the study of memory occurred in my Classical Rhetoric course while in the Masters program at DePaul. We read the Rhetorica ad Herennium, a text mentioned often in Foer's work, and while I freely admit that this wasn't exactly the highlight of my reading life, this text and other works by Cicero gave the class a foundation for memory studies. In particular, the works discussed the use of a memory palace to solidify lists in our minds. To explain:
The idea is to create a space in the mind's eye, a place that you know well and can easily visualize, and then populate that imagined place with images representing whatever you want to remember. Known as the "method of loci" by the Romans, such a building would later come to be called a "memory palace."

Tricks like this sprinkle the text which I really enjoyed (and am trying to use in my daily life). At one point, Foer has the reader play along with him, using a memory palace to remember a to-do list. Three days after reading that section, I still remember the freaking list.

I don't want to give the impression that the book is only an instruction manual on improving memory. Foer hasn't written a textbook here. This, in my opinion, is narrative nonfiction at its best: personal, informative, and entertaining.

The issue I got stuck on while reading is the relationship between memory and technology. Our ability to catalog and record experience and knowledge is unprecedented, and this living record does partially negate our need to remember. Education has been especially effected by this as the focus switched from teaching content to teaching access. I spend very little time having students memorize information. Instead, I teach them how to access it, evaluate it, and use it to create more information. I recognize that my role as a composition instructor influences this decision. I am sure that subjects such as history still require memorization (then again, maybe they don't). Foer discusses this issue throughout the book, and his insights are intriguing.

What's really fun though is that much of what Foer says - and I think - about the relationship between technology and memory was thought by Socrates about the implementation of writing. A special section of the book which I thought would be interesting and relevant to us bloggers discusses the history of reading. Freaking fascinating, especially as it relates to the loss of memory skills due to the increase in writing (an early technology).
Socrates feared that writing would lead the culture down a treacherous path toward intellectual and moral decay, because even while the quantity of knowledge available to people might increase, they themselves would come to resemble empty vessels.

And one final selection that I believe is super relevant for bloggers:
Michel de Montaigne expressed the dilemma of extensive reading in the sixteenth century: "I leaf through books, I do not study them," he wrote. "What I retain of them is something I no longer recognize as anyone else's. It is only the material from which my judgment has profited, and the thoughts and ideas with which it has become imbued; the author, the place, the words, and other circumstances, I immediately forget." He goes on to explain how "to compensate a little for the treachery and weakness of my memory," he adopted the habit of writing in the back of every book a short critical judgment, so as to have at least some general idea of what the tome was about and what he thought of it.
I know that I personally started this blog in part because the quantity of my reading was making it practically impossible to remember anything of substance about what I read.

So if you haven't figured it out by now, this book is absolutely overflowing with thought-provoking ideas. You should most definitely get your hands on a copy of this one as soon as possible.

This Book Around the Web
If I've missed your review, let me know!

Check out the other reviews which were part of the TLC Book Tour!


  1. I've heard so many good things about this book, and the author generally. I have not read any of his books, but hope to change that this year!

  2. I've been curious about this one ever since I saw the great title. I love that the author was able to make non-fiction fun!

  3. I have this book and am curious to give it try and read it. I had been intimidated of it before reading your review, but it actually sounds as if it's really accessible and cool as well! Thanks for the great review and quotes!

  4. This sounds really interesting. I usually read non-fiction of this type so it's good to see a review of it!

  5. Wow, sounds really good! I had seen it but worried I'd get bored with the topic fast. Looks like I should reconsider. I love the quote at the end and you're right, that's exactly how it was for me and blogging helps me remember!

  6. I wanted to review this one too, but then got a little scared of it... wondered if it would be too dense to get done quickly. Now I'm mad that I missed the chance! Will have to buy it though. Thanks for breaking it down for those of us who would be intimidated. ;)

  7. I just sort of skimmed your review, since I have to write mine and if I read to many other ones I can't think of anything to say! I'm glad you liked it, and I definitely enjoyed it too.

  8. Ooohhhh...this sounds good. (And I'm in love with the cover.) Lord knows I could use some memory tricks. And this kind of blend of subject is my favorite kind of non-fiction book.

    And I didn't know you were in a mixed marriage like me!!! (Non-reader married to reader.) I can count on ONE HAND how many books my husband reads in a year. Amazing to me.

  9. i'm a huge non-fiction fan and love to see more and more bloggers reviewing nf. i'm most partial to nonfiction that tells a story and imparts information, so this sounds like the perfect combo for me. i've seen a few other reviews around the blogs and am adding this one to my request list at the library. thanks for a great review! ps. i like your reviewing format. :)

  10. I've honestly never given much thought to the concept of a memory competition but the thought really intrigues me. This one sounds like quite the entertaining read!

  11. I just bought this book today. Now if I could just start reading it today.


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