Moonwalking With Einstein

Photo: Philip Friedman/Studio D

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Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
320 pages; The Penguin Press HC
"When I wake up," Joshua Foer writes in Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (Penguin), "the first thing I do is check my day planner, which remembers my schedule so that I don't have to. When I climb into my car, I enter my destination into a GPS device, whose spatial memory supplants my own." Here in the 21st century, even the simple act of remembering has become externalized, the end point of a process that began thousands of years ago, when people started to write things down. In this charming piece of participatory journalism, Foer—the younger brother of novelist Jonathan Safran Foer—explores the role of memory in both public and private life, while also telling the story of his efforts to compete in the U.S. Memory Championship, a tournament in which contestants memorize random words and numbers, or the order of a deck of cards. The book is part of a grand tradition, the writer as participating athlete, reminiscent of George Plimpton taking up football in Paper Lion. While Foer occasionally seems to be conducting a too-broad survey—of everything from memory techniques (including the memory palace, which was reputedly developed in ancient Greece by the poet Simonides) to savants, from technology to test scores to neuroscience—he ultimately comes to a conclusion that is as simple as it is profound: Memory is a key component of who we are, but perhaps "it is forgetting, not remembering, that is the essence of what makes us human."
— David L. Ulin