Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
Moonwalking with Einstein

Memory always has been a prized commodity in schools and colleges. The more you could remember (from rote) and vomit it onto the exam sheet, the more famous you became amongst your fellow mates, the teachers and even amongst the girls who were ready to make you a brother in school by tying a rakhi on your hand - though probably the same girls would run after you after hitting puberty. My own experiences have been mixed - I sometimes surprise myself and especially my girlfriend with memories of old incidents and accompanying vivid descriptions of events and people involved. Sometimes, just one incident is enough to trigger a barrage of interlinked thoughts and to start a mental voyage in time washed away by newer impressions. And many a times I can't remember trivial things like the name of the trains for which I have booked a seat, the prices of fruits for comparing which store sells cheaper. And a lot of other things too which I don't remember while I write this. Ah! My memory.

I distinctively remember one incident from my childhood - I was probably 10~12 years old and my younger brother around 7~9 years. It was afternoon time and both of us had just come back from school. It was a Saturday and hence a half day. Tele-shopping was around for some years but it had never resulted in us buying anything. On that particular day, there was a product that was being advertised on one of those tele-shopping channels (or it was during those off hours when you could see nothing but tele-shopping ads). In a small auditorium there was an audience comprising of mostly middle-aged and old people, and on the stage there were a handful of people selected by the host randomly and given memorizing tasks. After some tips from the host, their performance improved and the audience was left spellbound. Then the host challenged the audience to one more task - he would remember their names as soon as he got to know of them. So he made around a dozen or more of them stand up and after listening to their names started making them sit back again after reciting their names correctly. And it left us, me, my brother and my mother, impressed. And there was a special offer going on - with the audio cassettes of the techniques we would also get a free tutorial which would help us speed up our math skils - from multiplication, to division to anything. And the total cost was around a thousand rupees - a big amount back then. We pestered on to our mom to order it, and anyways it was coming with a money-back guarantee. My mom, too eager for both of us to perform well in school, ordered it. And after a couple of hours, a young guy came on a bike and delivered the cassettes to us. Before paying him we asked him to wait so that we could test them and make sure they weren't damaged. After all it was the first time we had ordered through telephone. When we started listening to the cassettes, we were shocked that it wasn't something that was fun - it was drab with some sounds being associated with some vowels, some numbers being associated with images etc. And it turned out to be a mistake paying so much for it. So we went down and mom told the guy that it was we, the children, had ordered it on phone and she was totally unaware of it. Luckily the guy, who seemed to be a newbie in the trade, agreed and took them back and went on his way. Day saved! I now realize that the problem wasn't with Tony Buzan's Harry Lorayne's product but my childish expectations of becoming a memory savant just by listening to some audio for hours - but Buzan's Lorayne's marketing also had a hand in the formation of such a view. And that was a much close as I would to memory techniques until my post-graduation wherein an Information Technology professor was more interested in Mind-Mapping than his own subject. He even provided us some free off-the-mill mind-mapping software to practice. Nothing came out of it really, I can't even recall the name of the software.

Tweets by Tony Buzan

The title of this book, Moonwalking with Einstein, was catchy enough for me to pick it up and flip through. Joshua Foer is a journalist and while writing for Slate covered the US Memory Championship and in the process got hooked to it and won it the next year himself! He gives an overview of how historically memory has been prized and it was used extensively, until the recent inventions of printing press and storage devices - 'recent' being used in a sense relative to the fact that for millions of years all we had were our memories. He meets several competitors and memory masters and starts practicing it in the basement of his parents' home. Over time, he improves his retention capacity and also comes across savants like Kim Peek. I had first heard of Kim Peek in 2011 when I came across a documentary about him. Joshua even meets Tony Buzan, yes, the same guy whose audio training material I almost bought, and gives us interesting glimpses in the millionaire's life. Buzan is still hyper-active in his life and even writes poetry.

The most interesting parts of the book are where Joshua connects with the reader and gives them hints and tips on memory techniques and even names resources which one could use. While, the most boring ones are where we get to learn of how the ancient people used to memorize and how their techniques weren't perfect. The sections describing outliers like someone who hardly remembers, someone who never forgets, someone who calculates in a jiffy make for an interesting read, however, do not add up to the active participation from the reader's perspective.

Tweets by Joshua Foer

A book that should definitely arouse your interest in mnemonics and will surely help you realize that if just another average guy like us, Joshua, could do it, then even we can do it - not to win any memory championship but to improvise our retention which definitely will be a great booster professionally and personally too. My final word: buy it today and start implementing the techniques and wish a bye-bye to forgetful life. There is a chapter about the 'OK Plateau' when his reciting times hit a stagnant spot and he writes how a conscious effort at improving one's skills is important to be amongst the best. This reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers in which he had written about the 10,000-hour rule for mastering anything. Joshua Foer can be regarded as a notch above Malcolm Gladwell because he actual works on those techniques rather than just write about them.

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