Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Book About Memory That Sticks In Your Head

Guess what? A totally new and different source of reading material! A few months ago, I decided to watch clips from the Colbert Report (I think someone I went out with mentioned the show so I got in the mood) and the interviewee was Joshua Foer, a journalist who won the US memory championships after a year of training.  Being a journalist, he wrote a chronicle of that year, and, for whatever reason, I decided it would be fun to read that chronicle.  The premise was that this was something that anyone could do, that the best memorizers in the world don't actually have special memories.  Of course, I am very interested in good memories, so I definitely wanted to hear about how good the best were :)  That being said, I was definitely somewhat hesitant about reading a first person account by some amateur...  But, you know, he was on the Colbert Report :) (not really, I've never read anything  I heard about on that show before).  And there were like 200 holds on it, so I figured it was probably decent.

So when I finally got ahold of it,  I read about the first 10 pages on the way to work.   Some lady on the subway saw it and ask me how I liked it, and I was totally positive - after 10 pages - of a non-fiction book! So definitely an easy start.  He writes really easily, very conversationally.  And he grabs you right away - certainly the journalist in him :) The beginning is kind of this grandiose intro to the whole idea of the sport of memory and the its methods, but Foer (I'm going to be very professional :)) knows that we find it skeptical.  Everytime I say, yeah but... but what's the point? but is that really what makes it work? he asks the same question.  Sometimes he doesn't really answer it, but it's nice to know he's listening :) I mean there are definitely times he waxes a little too rhapsodic on the subject, or tries to shoehorn the entire universe and a new philosophy in to what is pretty much a neat trick.  But in general, he keeps it pretty real.

So it probably would have been a decent read even if it was all about his year as a memory acolyte.  But most of the book consists of tangents about either the history of memory, known great minds, or (mostly) the psychology of memory.  The last of these is something I of course find intersesting, and something about which I know surprisingly little.  The only book I can think of that really discussed how memory worked in any detail was Godel Escher Bach, and that was written like 30 years ago! A lot of what Foer talked about was either new to me or only known in vague terms.  And more than interesting, I actually found it relevant.  It's almost funny how many times since I've read the book I've thought about the way I memorize things or the way my mind works or something else that puts me in mind of the book.  I've definitely referenced it at least twice in conversation.  Slightly embarassing, because I don't even know if you could call this book pop psychology, it's written by a *journalist* but well, it's not like psychology is really science anyway :) And he did do his research.  So we get light sprinkles of all the most engaging sciency stuff wrapped up in an easy-on-the-eyes first person narrative.  A lot of fun AND educational :)

Verdict: 4.5/5 (For what it is of course, not like I'm going to read this 30 times more)

No comments:

Post a Comment