by Joshua Foer.
I picked this up as the cover sang out at me from the table at Waterstone’s (I’m still keeping the apostrophe). Jonah Lehrer adorns the back cover with his quote ‘If you want to understand how we remember, and how we can all learn to remember better, then read this book.’
Joshua is a US journalist who was covering the 2005 USA Memory Championship and got hooked. The book follows his story into the weird world of memory athletes and the training you have to endure to have a sporting chance of remembering a whole deck of cards in under a minute. Along the way you hear about the colourful contestants, who frankly meet any stereotypes you may already have of people who spend all their time trying to remember Pi to XX decimal places, and go on the journey with the author as he attempts to become the USA Memory Champion in just one year.
There is a good level of science in the book too and a lot of the main theories of memory are covered, albeit slightly quickly. The book touches on parts of neuroscience and how brain damaged patients have suffered with memory loss as well as meeting some of the savants who show astonishing levels of memory despite other disabilities. Despite these interludes the main emphasis of the book is that anyone can train themselves to have a better memory if they know how the techniques. The author introduces the techniques and references further reading at all points should you wish to go off and explore more.
The most fascinating aspect for me was learning the history of memory and mnemonic techniques. The whole book is preluded by the story of how Simonides remembered all the ill-fated guests attending a banquet after the roof collapsed and how this fifth century BC legend started the art of memory. From this point you learn how the art of remembering was held in exceptionally high regard and a indeed a fundamental part of learning.
“A trained memory was not just a handy tool, but a fundamental facet of any human mind. What’s more, memory training was considered a form of character building, a way of developing the cardinal virtue of prudence and, by extension, ethics. Only through memorising, the thinking went, could ideas truly be incorporated into one’s psyche and their values absorbed.”
This tradition has been lost with our reliance on external aids and many of the characters in the book are striving to rectify this. The point that is being made is that our education system teaches our children what to learn without any of the tools how to effectively learn it – so if anyone sees Micheal Gove then please pop a copy of this book in his hands.
This is a very well-written book with insights into memory and memory science with enough personal anecdotes and stories to keep it amusing and light-hearted.
Review by Paul Davies.