Book by Joshua Foer
Review by Carol Antill
Angelo State University
In the age of GoogleTM, how important is the ability to memorize? College students and their academic advisors need look no further than Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything for the rationale of developing this skill. Author Joshua Foer accepts the challenge to compete in the 2006 USA Memory Championship as an exercise in professional development, not expecting to win. The year that he spends while training for the championship is cleverly sandwiched between a historical look at memory phenomenons and cutting-edge studies of memory enhancement.
The average college student will be able to identify with Foer as a young man who is just beginning his career and still lives with his parents at the time he wrote the book; his revelation that most of the competitors at the championship are not geniuses or even prodigies shows an appealing vulnerability about himself as well as the other competitors. Characterizations of his interviewees, from the founder of the championship, Tony Buzan, to fellow competitor Ed Cooke, who eventually becomes Foer’s coach, reads more like a novel than non-fiction.
For advisors, Chapter Eight “The Okay Plateau” provides support for motivating students who feel they have peaked in mental or physical pursuits. Citing several studies about top achievers in fields ranging from ice skating to music, Foer concludes that not only is the way we practice a skill more important than how much time we spend practicing but that improvement is often a product of learning from our mistakes.
Advisors growing accustomed to the typical high school student being underprepared for college will find encouragement in Foer’s chapter highlighting a unique group of competitors known as the Talented Tenth. Mentored by their American history teacher, this select group of South Bronx tenth-graders enters the championship each year. Many of them place well in the individual events but even more impressive is their success rate on the New York State Regents exam: for 4 years running, all of these students passed and 85% scored 90 or above (Foer, p. 190).
Foer’s investigation of memory as art and science uncovers multiple perspectives. From his interview with an anthropologist studying the oral tradition among the Apache of the American Southwest, we see the role of memory becoming a lost art. Building the myths of their people from the landscape surrounding them, the Apache relied on the oral tradition for passing on their culture to the next generation; when their land was seized by the government, they not only lost a physical home but a landscape that supported memory and cultural identity. From Microsoft research engineer Gordon Bell we learn of a process called “lifelogging” (Foer, p. 157). By recording his daily life and scanning emails, photographs, etc. into an external drive Bell is creating a surrogate memory with an end goal of seamless integration between internal and external memories that will make forgetfulness obsolete.
Perhaps the greatest lesson to take from this book is about persistence. When the author is plagued by self-doubt about his progress or intimidated by the idea of competing against previous champions, he takes a one-day-at-a-time approach to his training. Living on different continents doesn’t prevent him from going to Ed for advice when he feels discouraged or overwhelmed. The role of persistence, not only with improving memory but in most aspects of life, may be the jumpstart needed for the next discussion between academic advisor and advisee.
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. (2011). Book by Joshua Foer. Review by Carol Antill. New York: Penguin. 320pp., $16.00, (Paperback). ISBN # 978-0-14-312053-7