Moonwalking with Einstein (Foer)

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Joshua Foer, 2011
Penguin Group USA
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781594202292

Foer's unlikely journey from chronically forgetful science journalist to U.S. Memory Champion frames a revelatory exploration of the vast, hidden impact of memory on every aspect of our lives.

On average, people squander forty days annually compensating for things they've forgotten. Joshua Foer used to be one of those people.

But after a year of memory training, he found himself in the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship. Even more important, Foer found a vital truth we too often forget: In every way that matters, we are the sum of our memories.

Moonwalking with Einstein draws on cutting-edge research, a surprising cultural history of memory, and venerable tricks of the mentalist's trade to transform our understanding of human remembering

Under the tutelage of top "mental athletes," he learns ancient techniques once employed by Cicero to memorize his speeches and by Medieval scholars to memorize entire books. Using methods that have been largely forgotten, Foer discovers that we can all dramatically improve our memories.

Immersing himself obsessively in a quirky subculture of competitive memorizers, Foer learns to apply techniques that call on imagination as much as determination-showing that memorization can be anything but rote.

From the PAO system, which converts numbers into lurid images, to the memory palace, in which memories are stored in the rooms of imaginary structures, Foer's experience shows that the World Memory Championships are less a test of memory than of perseverance and creativity.

Foer takes his inquiry well beyond the arena of mental athletes-across the country and deep into his own mind. In San Diego, he meets an affable old man with one of the most severe case of amnesia on record, where he learns that memory is at once more elusive and more reliable than we might think.

In Salt Lake City, he swaps secrets with a savant who claims to have memorized more than nine thousand books. At a high school in the South Bronx, he finds a history teacher using twenty- five-hundred-year-old memory techniques to give his students an edge in the state Regents exam.

At a time when electronic devices have all but rendered our individual memories obsolete, Foer's bid to resurrect the forgotten art of remembering becomes an urgent quest. Moonwalking with Einstein brings Joshua Foer to the apex of the U.S. Memory Championship and readers to a profound appreciation of a gift we all possess but that too often slips our minds. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Washington, DC, USA
Education—Yale University
Currently—lives in the New Haven, Connecticut

Joshua Foer is a freelance journalist living in New Haven, USA, with a primary focus on science. He was the 2006 U.S.A. Memory Champion, which was described in his 2011 book, Moonwalking with Einstein.

Foer is the younger brother of New Republic editor Franklin Foer and novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. He is the son of Esther Foer, president of a public relations firm, and Albert Foer, a think-tank president. He was born in Washington, D.C. and attended Georgetown Day School. He then went on to graduate from Yale University, where he lived in Silliman College, in 2004.


Foer is married to Dinah Herlands, a medical student at Yale, whom he met while an undergraduate at Yale.

Foer published his first book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, in 2011. He received a $1.2 million advance for the book when he was 24. Film rights were optioned by Columbia Pictures shortly after publication.


In 2006, Foer won the U.S.A. Memory Championship, and set a new record in the "speed cards" event by memorizing a deck of 52 cards in 1 minute and 40 seconds. [4] Moonwalking with Einstein describes Foer's journey as a participatory journalist to becoming a national champion mnemonist, under the tutelage of British Grand Master of Memory, Ed Cooke.

Foer's work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Slate, and The Nation. In 2007, the quarterly art & culture journal Cabinet began publishing Foer's column "A Minor History Of." The column "examines an overlooked cultural phenomenon using a timeline.

Foer has organized several websites and organizations based on his interests. He created the Athanasius Kircher Society which had only one session featuring Kim Peek and Joseph Kittinger." He is the co-founder, along with Dylan Thuras, of the Atlas Obscura—an online compendium of "The World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica". He is also a co-organizer of Sukkah City—an architectural design competition planned in partnership with New York City's union Square Park in 2010. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews 
In his captivating new book, Moonwalking With Einstein, the young journalist Joshua Foer tackles the subject of memory the way George Plimpton tackled pro football and boxing…Mr. Foer writes in these pages with fresh enthusiasm. His narrative is smart and funny and, like the work of Dr. Oliver Sacks, it's informed by a humanism that enables its author to place the mysteries of the brain within a larger philosophical and cultural contex.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

His passionate and deeply engrossing a resounding tribute to the muscularity of the mind... In the end, Moonwalking with Einstein reminds us that though brain science is a wild frontier and the mechanics of memory little understood, our minds are capable of epic achievements.
Washington Post

It's delightful to travel with him on this unlikely journey, and his entertaining treatment of memory as both sport and science is spot on...Moonwalking with Einstein proves uplifting: It shows that with motivation, focus and a few clever tricks, our minds can do rather extraordinary things.
Wall Street Journal

"[An] inspired and well-written debut book about not just memorization, but about what it means to be educated and the best way to become so, about expertise in general, and about the not-so-hidden "secrets" of acquiring skills.
Seattle Times

He explores various ways in which we test our memories, such as the extensive training British cabbies must undergo. He also discusses ways we can train ourselves to have better memories, like the PAO system, in which, for example, every card in a deck is associated with an image of a specific person, action, or object. An engaging, informative, and for the forgetful, encouraging book. —David Pitt

In his first book, freelance journalist Foer recounts his adventures in preparing for the U.S. Memory Championship, investigating both the nature of memory and why the act of memorization still matters. For much of human history, remembering was the key to retaining accumulated knowledge and wisdom. The invention of printing sparked the development of "externalized memory," which has been greatly accelerated by computers and the Internet. We need no longer remember everything, but rather know where to find it, relegating memory experts to a "quirky subculture" comprised of individuals able to remember a list of 1,000 numbers, the exact order of two decks of playing cards and other feats. Foer began to investigate this subculture and then joined it as he trained for a year to compete among other "mental athletes." Mental athletes are neither geniuses nor savants, but they have mastered the art of translating what the brain is not good at remembering—words and numbers—into what it is good at remembering—space and images. They employ the 2,500-year-old mnemonic device of constructing "memory palaces"—imaginary buildings with distinct images throughout these spaces. For example, an image of President Clinton smoking a cigar on the couch might be the number three. It becomes, of course, quite complex, but Foer emphasizes that memorization is neither a gift nor a trick; it is hard work developing "a degree of attention and mindfulness normally lacking." The author is as concerned with what memory means as he is with learning how to memorize. He offers fascinating and accessible explorations into the workings of the brain and tells the story of a man who could forget nothing and of another man who could only remember his most immediate thought. If "experience is the sum of our memories and wisdom the sum of experience," writes the author, what does it mean that "we've supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of technological crutches"? An original, entertaining exploration about how and why we remember.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Moonwalking with Einstein:

1. How's the state of your memory?

2. Talk about techniques to improve the memory—the PAO system and the Memory Palace. How do they work? Have you attempted to use either technique to improve your own memory? What are some of the lurid objects...or houses you would use to recall objects you want to remember?

3. How important is memory to us today when our culture provides so many other ways of recalling information: our ability to write, printed texts, photos, computers, and smart phones?

4. In the ancient world, learning was memorizing. How would you characterize today's learning? What role does memory play in acquiring knowledge? Were the students Foer visited in the South Bronx learning history or memorizing it...or both?

5. Talk about the way memory shapes our identities and perceptions of the world. How does it do so?

6. What is Foer's reaction when he wins the U.S. Memory Championship? Did it fulfill his hopes and ideals of what an improved memory would bring him?

7. What do you think of Foer's coach, Ed Cooke? What about his philosophy that "a heroic person should be able to withstand about 10 years of solitary confinement without getting terribly annoyed"?

8. Talk about Ribot's Law—the process of integtrating memories into the brain's network. Does that law seem to hold true for your brain?

9. What is the role of memory in our culture and why does Foer say it is eroding at an ever faster pace? How serious a problem is this national amnesia...if, in fact, that's what it is?

10. Foer says that in the process of learning to memorize, he also learned "to pay attention to the world around" him. Are you keenly aware of your surroundings? How much attention do you pay to the world around you? 

11. What sections in this book did you find funny? What was most interesting to you?

12. How much of this book do you remember?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online of off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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