I just finished Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. It’s a study of what scientists know about memory and what wise people through Western history have thought about it, along with the author’s involvement in the U.S. Memory Championship, an obscure and weird competition in which geeky persons memorize decks of cards and perform other memory feats. It’s an entertaining and fascinating account.
Memory geeks use tricks, some derived from ancient texts, such as “memory palaces.” Think of a familiar building, like the house where you grew up. If you’re trying to remember a shopping list, you place each item in a place in your mental house. The potatoes go on your front step, the milk on the table by your door, the loaf of bread on the couch. Once you have a picture of concrete things in your mind, you remember.
Foer learns, however, that you can’t really strengthen your memory like a muscle. Memorizing doesn’t develop a generally better memory. At the end of the book, after a year of memory training, he takes the subway home after dinner with friends, forgetting that he’d driven his car to the restaurant. “I hadn’t just forgotten where I parked it,” he writes. “I’d forgotten I had it.”
Foer did learn, however, that discipline and study–the effort to accomplish something hard–pay off. He grows in confidence. He says, “I’d learned firsthand that with focus, motivation, and, above all, time, the mind can be trained to do extraordinary things.”
All very interesting. Then, by chance, I picked up Anne Tyler’s most recent novel, Noah’s Compass, which turns out to be about memory. Her hapless main character (hapless kind of automatically goes with Anne Tyler) Liam Pennywell is beaten up by an intruder but has no memory of the attack, and this gap bothers him throughout the book. In addition, his three daughters and his ex-wife have different memories of their past. Memory and its slipperiness provide the book’s theme.
Here’s an ironic twist. A page or two into Noah’s Compass I realized, to my surprise, that I had read the book before. Because I couldn’t remember how it turned out, I kept reading to the end.