Total Recall

Joshua Foer’s journalistic journey down memory lane.

03/08/2011
Jewish Week Book Critic
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Back in 2006, journalist Joshua Foer found himself seated on a stage in the Con Ed headquarters in New York City, wearing earmuffs over earplugs, sweating as he flipped through two decks of shuffled playing cards in order to memorize their order.

Television cameras rolled. After covering the United States Memory Championship — the Super Bowl of Science, in his words — the previous year for Slate, he was a contestant, racing for perfect recall.

Foer’s first book, “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” (Penguin Press), is an account of events leading to his championship season. While his own regimen of memory training and competition form the book’s narrative core, he makes enlightening detours. With originality, high energy and an appealing blend of chutzpah and humility, he writes of his own adventures and probes the history and literature of memory, the science of how the brain functions, and the connections between memory, identity and culture.

Foer portrays the grand masters of memory over the centuries — those known for their remarkable power; scientists and philosophers who’ve studied memory; and the mental athletes, trainers and hucksters now exercising their abilities on the memory circuit. Ever curious, he seeks out a man with a severe case of amnesia, who had no sense of the past or the future other than his most recent thought. While he has a charming personality, he has no sense of identity, no conception of the narrative of his own life. And Foer learns of a man who remembered too much, whose “memory was a beast that gobbled up everything it was fed.” To forget was his real challenge.

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While he had read and heard stories about people who have memorized all 5,422 pages of the Babylonian Talmud and can identify the words that a pin stuck through any volume might pierce, he was eager to meet someone with that talent.

When Foer first attended a memory competition, he expected to find the participants to be freaks of nature, but quickly realized they were regular, if quirky, folks who had taught themselves memory-enhancing techniques — like the reigning world memory champion who could memorize the precise order of 1,528 random digits in an hour, or any poem handed to him. When a trainer suggested that Foer too could learn systems for remembering, and offered to coach him, Foer seized the opportunity. And what began as an experiment in participatory journalism, he tells The Jewish Week, became an obsession and an unexpected triumph.

Foer, 28, grew up in Washington, D.C., the youngest of the three Foer brothers, all of them now accomplished writers (Franklin Foer, until recently editor of The New Republic, is the author of “How Soccer Explains the World,” and Jonathan Safran Foer has written the novel “Everything is Illuminated”. Joshua Foer says that his brothers are his best friends, and they all read drafts of each other’s work.

Before beginning this project, Foer thought of himself as someone of average memory at best, who regularly forgot where he put his car keys (and sometimes his car), Valentine’s Day, and food left in the oven. But even as he began to successfully memorize lists of numbers and details, daily life didn’t change, and he still forgets why he opened the refrigerator. He kept to a strict routine, working out (his memory) for a half hour each morning and then in two five-minute booster sessions in the afternoons. While training, he realized he was memorizing license plates in walks around the neighborhood. His trainer’s philosophy of life: “A heroic person should be able to withstand about ten years in solitary confinement without getting terribly annoyed.” That’s a lot of remembered poetry.

An often-used technique involves elaborate encoding, based on classical memory training. The basic techniques invented by the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos, and recorded in a Latin textbook written between 86 and 82 BCE, involve imagining a building with many rooms. In order to remember an object or fact, it would be assigned to a certain space that could be recalled visually. These structures came to be known as memory palaces. For his competition, Foer invented several of his own — one a modernist glass structure, another a turreted Queen Anne. He also learned to create his own mnemonics: The more quirky and colorful, the more effective. This is not a how-to book, but readers may be inspired to do their own willful remembering.

“Moonwalking with Einstein” — the title is drawn from a mnemonic he uses — is engaging and timely. In a chapter “The End of Remembering,” Foer writes of how memory, once considered essential, is now marginalized. We barely remember phone numbers, let alone poetry. These days, information is stored and easily retrieved outside of our brains and accessed with cell phones, computers and GPS devices. He suggests that we may begin thinking of these memories as extensions of our internal memories.

In conversation, Foer, who is also the co-founder of the design competition Sukkah City, speaks of the centrality of memory to Jewish life. His brother Jonathan has written that for Jews, memory is a sixth sense, and that line resonates for Joshua. Citing Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s book “Zachor” (Remember!), he says, “We’re the only people who elevated remembering into a religious obligation.”

Jews, he explains “are extremely well practiced in a kind of mnemonics. We sit down at the Passover seder and say we’re going to remember this event, engaging in a multi-sensorial experience in the act of memory. We’ve become experts at how to ensure that things are remembered.”

For Foer, creativity happens in the tension between memory and forgetting. Looking back, he writes, “What I had really trained my brain to do, as much as to memorize, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice.”

Joshua Foer will speak about “Moonwalking with Einstein” on Tuesday, March 15, 7 p.m., at Barnes & Noble, 82nd Street and Broadway, and on Monday, April 11, 7 p.m., at Half King, 505 W. 23rd St. (10th Ave.).

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