Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer

“I closed my eyes again and saw myself back at the foot of my parents’ driveway. The enormous jar of pickled garlic was just where I’d left it. I walked up the path to the front door. There was Claudia Schiffer, seductively scrubbing herself with a sponge in a tub of cottage cheese. I opened the door and turned to the left, and inhaled a noseful of the fish that was still laid out across the strings of the piano, curing in peat smoke. I felt its flavor on my tongue. I could hear the high-pitched chatter of those haughty wine bottles on the couch, and feel the three pairs of luxurious cotton socks on the lamp brushing softly against my forehead.”

What is this—a passage from some lost surrealist novel or a scene from a movie aping early Buñuel? Nope, it’s a memory palace.

And what, pray tell is a memory palace? That’s a better question.The idea stems, legend has it, from a disaster at a banquet in Greece in the fifth century BC. The story (as related by Cicero in his work De oratore) goes that, immediately after delivering an ode on the party’s host, the poet Simonides of Ceos stepped outside for some air, just in time to see the hall’s roof collapse, killing everyone inside and entombing them. In an effort to help find the bodies, Simonides forced himself to remember exactly where in the banquet hall each attendee had been seated during his speech, and lo it worked—the corpses were all recovered. Over the ensuring centuries, the technique was revised, expanded, and codified by minds great and less than great, notably the sixteenth-century friar and mystic Giordano Bruno (a fascinating genius who was - like so many fascinating geniuses of the day—ultimately burned at the stake for heresy), until it reached the form it exists in today, where memorizers make celebrities do strange things in their minds to assist in recalling strings of numbers in the name of winning trophies. (Oddly enough, it showed up in two other books that I read shortly after this one, Paul Auster’s Moon Palace and Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, although I was first made aware of the concept in John Crowley’s amazing Aegypt quartet, in which Bruno figures as a major character.)

It is this “method of loci” (as it is also called) that is discovered by Joshua Foer in the process that led to his book Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Foer (younger brother of Jonathan and Franklin) finds himself drawn into the world of competitive memory; at the same time, he chronicles the history of great memories and the activities of notable memorizers of the present.

If this sounds boring, rest assured that it is not: the history and interview sections are fascinating. I could have easily read an entire book on the “Talented Tenth” (a group of high-achieving, high-memorizing students at Samuel Gompers Vocational High School in the south Bronx under the aegis of teacher Raemon Matthews), and Foer’s chapter on Daniel Tammet (which has raised controversy—Foer accuses him of not being the savant he claims) had me in the mood to read Tammet’s own book, Born on a Blue Day. Would that these sections were the whole book: although he’s a fine interviewer, Foer is not a good enough writer to make his own adventures in memory particularly compelling. (It would take a truly remarkable writer indeed to make the process of memorizing and recalling the order of a deck of cards as exciting as Foer seems to think it is.)

And then there’s another question: is the memory palace technique useful? Well, I can’t say that I’ve tried it. But I found myself wondering throughout what, if any, real world applications it would have—unless I decided to memorize pi for the hell of it (and I have no interest in doing that, although I had friends in high school who did), I can’t imagine having any use other than occasionally storing phone numbers in my head. And—at the risk of coming off like a bit of a jackass—I have a cell phone for that.

So, in short, Moonwalking with Einstein is half of a really good book and half of a really boring one. Remember that.

(Hi, I'm Seth. Last of the newbies. Be gentle.)

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