This is a really fascinating and fantastic book. The simple summary is that the author, a journalist, spent a year studying memory techniques in order to ultimately compete in the U.S. Memory Championships. In the “guy does something quirky for a year and then writes about it” genre it’s similar to a whole bunch of other books: The Year of Living Biblically, Julie and Julia, Better Off, ,Plenty , and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. But Foer does a better job than most at going beyond the personal tale of self-discovery to explore the history of memory as an art, the philosophy of education and deeper questions of how our minds work.
The success of [these] students raises questions about the purposes of education that are as old as schooling itself, and never seem to go away. What does it mean to be intelligent, and what exactly is it that schools are supposed to be teaching? As the role of memory in the conventional sense has diminished, what should its place be in contemporary pedagogy? Why bother loading up kids’ memories with facts if you’re ultimately preparing them for a world of externalized memories? p 191
And in a defense of classical education if I’ve ever heard one:
“I don’t use the world ‘memory’ in my class because it’s a bad word in education,” says Matthews. You make monkeys memorize, wheras education is the ability to retrieve information at will and analyze it. But you can’t have higher level learning- you can’t analyze- without retrieving information.” And you can’t retrieve information without putting the information in there in the first place. The dichotomy between “learning” and “memorizing” is false, Matthews contends. You can’t learn without memorizing, and if done right, you can’t memorize without learning. p 195
One of the most interesting chapters to me was when Foer investigates the story of Daniel Tammet, a self professed autistic savant with synesthesia who has written several books, been on David Letterman and spoken at the TED conference. I read Tammet’s book, Born on a Blue Day and found it a really fascinating story. Foer raises the possibility that Tammet is not truly the natural savant that he has presented himself as but instead is a very gifted mnemonist. I thought Foer’s argument and evidence were compelling and that he wrote the chapter in a respectful way. However, the most interesting aspect of his argument was why it would matter if someone is a savant or a trained mnemonist.
I wonder what we’d say if he’d achieved those things only through rigorous discipline and enormous effort. Would that make him more incredible…or less? We want to believe that there are Daniel Tammets walking among us, individuals born into this world with extraordinary talents in the face of extraordinary difficulties. It is one of the most inspiring ideas about the human mind. But perhaps Daniel exemplifies an even more inspiring idea: that we all have remarkable capacities asleep inside of us. If only we bothered ourselves to awaken them.p. 236
The most common comment I got when reading this book was someone asking if it “worked”. Followed by people making fun of me when I would forget something like where I put my keys. (“Hey, maybe you should read that book more closely!”) The one thing this book really isn’t is a “how-to” or “self help” kind of book. You can’t avoid coming away with some knowledge of techniques to help improve your memory but the main idea is that it takes hard work and discipline and there is no quick fix. If you want a a how-to book, look elsewhere. But if you just want a really great read, I’d highly recommend this one.