Review: ‘Moonwalking With Einstein’ by Joshua Foer

by Kim on March 9, 2011 · 30 comments

Post image for Review: ‘Moonwalking With Einstein’ by Joshua Foer

Title: Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Author: Joshua Foer
Genre: Literary Journalism
Year: 2011
Acquired: From the publisher for review for a TLC Book Tour.
Rating: ★★★★☆

One Sentence Summary: Journalist Joshua Foer spent a year immersing himself in the art of memory, culminating in competing in the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship.

One Sentence Review: Foer’s book is wonderful when exploring the ideas of memory, but lacks the same sort of passion when Foer focuses on himself and tying his experiences to broader themes.

Why I Read It: I usually enjoy books written by journalists who spend a year immersed in a quirky subculture, so this book seemed right up my alley.

Long Review: While I’m normally not the kind of reader that puts much stock into the blurbs on the back of a book, the authors who endorsed Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein are pretty impressive: Mary Roach, uninhibited science journalist who has covered sex, dead bodies, and space travel; Jonah Lehrer, an expert on decision-making and neuroscience; and Stefan Fatsis, a journalist known for his immersion journalism experiences. They’re three of my favorite authors, and they’re big names for a first book.

Happily, Moonwalking With Einstein, a well-written and amusing look at the world of memory science, lives up to most of the hype. The book opens at the 2006 U.S. Memory Championship, where Foer is facing off against the defending champion in the final round. We’re then left with a series of questions: what does it take to become a memory champion, and why are we so obsessed with what we can and cannot remember?

The book is strongest when Foer is exploring the idea of memory and the way our impressions about the importance of memory has changed since ancient times. In his quest to understand how memory works, Foer spends time with mental athletes, neuroscientists, savants, and accidental amnesiacs. The book ranges widely, and that’s part of it’s considerable charm.

Unfortunately, the book loses some interest when Foer is talking about his memory training and work preparing for the memory championship. I got the sense that Foer didn’t really care about memory championships or even winning, which makes the conceit of a piece of journalism like this one feel a little bit false. I expected that he would care more, or at least express some sort of passion for the art of memory, but the end of the book just sort of fizzles without a strong or cohesive ending that brings his personal experiences and research together effectively.

But that’s about the only reason this book isn’t a 5-star read, and it’s not enough of a critique to not recommend the book for readers with even a passing interest in thinking about how we remember. Since I finished the book last week, I’ve had passages come up conversation regularly and I’ve been thinking about many of the points Foer makes. One of my favorites was about the idea of novelty as it relates to memory. As he explains,

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next — and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locals, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perceptions of our lives.

If that’s not a great takeaway from a book full of anecdotes to think about remembering, then I’m not sure what is. Now get out there and lengthen the perception of your life.

Other Reviews: Nonsuch Book | Debbie’s World of Books | Book Club Classics | Ken Jennings | eclectic / eccentric | Man of La Book |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

gavin March 9, 2011 at 8:39 am

Thanks for this review. I read Foer’s article in the NY Times Magazine and found it fascinating. At some point I will have to read the book!

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Kim March 10, 2011 at 6:16 pm

gavin: I skimmed the article, but it covered a lot of the same stuff as the book, so I didn’t read all of it — didn’t want to spoil anything. The book is great; I hope you are able to read it.

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Kathleen March 9, 2011 at 8:56 am

Just wanted to stop in and say that I love the format of your reviews and I hope it’s okay if I adopt it for my own blog! I’ll link to you when I do my first one. :)

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Kim March 10, 2011 at 6:17 pm

Kathleen: Thank you, and yes, go right ahead. I don’t think it’s especially unique :)

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Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours March 9, 2011 at 10:20 am

I don’t always trust the author blurbs on book either, but with three of your favorite authors on the cover of this one I’d say this book had a lot to live up to! I’m glad to see that (for the most part) it did meet your expectations.

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Kim March 10, 2011 at 6:17 pm

Heather: Welcome back! I hardly ever read author blurbs, but I just happened to glance at these and was really surprised!

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bermudaonion (Kathy) March 9, 2011 at 4:09 pm

I enjoy books written by journalist who have immersed themselves in a new situation for a year as well, but this one may not be for me.

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Kim March 10, 2011 at 6:18 pm

bermudaonion: I’m not sure if you can call it a genre, but I do love immersion journalism. Sometimes they can be gimmicky, but when done well they are fun.

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Ash March 9, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Your review has only confirmed by original decision to read this book. Wishlisting immediately–sounds great. I love total immersion stories as well.

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Kim March 10, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Ash: Yay, I’m glad! I’m not sure I’d call Foer’s memory training totally immersive, but close.

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Florinda March 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm

I’ve been a little iffy on whether I want to read this, but I saw Foer on The Colbert Report the other night and I got more interested. The premise reminds me a little of Stefan Fatsis’ Word Freak, which I loved, so it’s interesting to see that he blurbed this!

I’m actually thinking of getting my husband to read this, though – the man can’t remember anything (unless it happened on TV 30 years ago) :-D.

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Kim March 10, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Florinda: I was thinking about Word Freak the ENTIRE time I was reading this. It’s almost impossible not to make comparisons, and I really liked Word Freak.

And I really want Boyfriend to read it — his memory is terrible!

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Trisha March 10, 2011 at 6:38 pm

The broad range discussed in the book is definitely one of the things I loved about it! Foer has a way of relaying information in a way I find fun and useful.

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Kim March 13, 2011 at 7:39 am

Trisha: Agreed; his style and voice made even complicated material easy to understand, and I enjoyed that too.

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wilde.dash March 11, 2011 at 11:31 am

I hadn’t heard about this, but it sounds quite interesting. I’m always on the lookout for non-fiction that exposes me to something I otherwise may not have considered…

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Kim March 13, 2011 at 7:40 am

wilde.dash: That’s my favorite reason to read nonfiction — to explore topics I otherwise wouldn’t get to learn about.

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Pam March 13, 2011 at 2:29 pm

If you love immersion journalism, Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief is a must-read. You will never look at orchids the same way again!

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Kim March 16, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Pam: Thanks for the recommendation. I read The Orchid Thief last year, I think? Sometime since I started blogging. It’s definitely a fabulous example of immersion journalism!

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Rebecca Reid March 18, 2011 at 5:18 pm

I’m not very interested in the do-something-for-a-year books but I’ve seen this one all over so was curious. Too bad his interest didn’t carry over to his own experience. It sounds like its full of fascinating info.

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Kim March 19, 2011 at 8:46 am

Rebecca: That was one disappointment. In books like this one, if the author doesn’t seem to have taken anything from the experience, it feels more like a stunt. Even so, the memory parts of the book were interesting enough to balance that out for me.

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S. Krishna March 20, 2011 at 8:03 pm

I’ll admit, I wasn’t really taken in by this book when I first heard about it, but my curiosity has been piqued by the reviews I’ve been reading. While I have a feeling the “stunt” feel might irk me, I still want to give it a try. Thanks for the review!

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Kim March 24, 2011 at 6:42 pm

S. Krishna: The idea of it being a stunt didn’t really come to me until I got to the end and the author wrote about just sort of giving up the idea of memory competition after he competed in the world championship. It just felt as if he hadn’t really gotten anything from the experience, which is a little irksome. Even so, I found a lot to enjoy in the first parts of the book and can recommend it to most people as a fun nonfiction read.

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