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Ruth’s Reviews – Moonwalking with Einstein

Ruth Francis, Nature’s head of press, is reading the shortlist of the Royal Society Winton prize for science books at a rate of one a week. She’s done it before. Will she succeed this year? The winner of the prize will be announced on 26 November.

Humans, it seems, have always fretted about memory. Socrates worried that writing would be detrimental to memory. In the fifteenth century the Gutenberg press meant more access to books and less need to remember for ourselves. Today fact-checking via the internet is at our fingertips around the clock.

Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein is an exploration of memory in which we meet extreme examples — people with extraordinary abilities to remember, and others who can only forget. Ultimately, however, it is the story of one man’s journey from average forgetfulness to competitor in the USA Memory Championship.

“What had begun as an exercise in participatory journalism had become an obsession,” writes Foer. “I had set out simply to learn what the strange world of the memory circuit was all about and find out if memory was indeed improvable.”

And it makes for participatory reading. I could not help but test some of the techniques he encountered during his year of obsession. At a recent party I was better able to remember names thanks to just one of the suggestions — to associate a new name with someone you already know with the same name.

Foer starts out as a reporter, writing about mental athletes, but he is quickly sucked into their sphere. He is taken under the wing of a British competitor, Ed, and becomes submersed in his world, with the ultimate aim of winning the USA Memory Championship the next year. En route he meets famous case studies and the scientists who worked with them, and becomes a case study in memory research in his own right.

In some ways I found the tales of famous savants, synaesthetes and memory miracles more immersive than Foer’s own journey. This isn’t to say that his own exploration is not engaging, but these one-offs are fascinating, and each gives us insight into how our own memories are processed.

These self-proclaimed Knights of Learning live in a strange world, almost entirely devoid of women, and I was glad someone else did the legwork so I could stand on the sidelines and cheer — without having to participate myself.


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