Socrates thought the unexamined life was not worth living. How much more so the unremembered life?
One of my life goals is to memorize the New Testament book of Romans. Last Fall, a buddy of mine said to me, “so let’s start doing it today!” To which I responded, “well… it’s really just a life goal… you know, something out there to go after one day in the future.” After calling my bluff, the mnemonological pursuit was on… and after a couple chapters I stumbled and drifted away like an unnoticed ‘man overboard’ watching that ship sail away. Then I saw this book, and thought to myself this will be a perfect book to get me back on board and also kick off this year’s 52 books.
Journalist, turned author, Joshua Foer (think of a man ‘joshing’ with you broken up into four pieces) stumbled upon the world of professional memorizers known as mental athletes (MA) who compete internationally each year in the world memory championship.
It was at both the United States National Championships and subsequent World Champions where Josh witnessed the MAs perform amazing mental feats such as memorizing entire decks of shuffled cards in two minutes, or reciting 100 lines of previously unpublished poetry from memory after studying it for five minutes, or recalling hundreds and even thousands of random binary digits, and more. Josh was impressed by this apparent group of geniuses, and later perplexed as he interviewed several of the world’s best who all insisted that they were not special or particularly intelligent. A couple of them even challenged Josh by saying, “with an hour of training a day, you could compete and win next year’s United States competition” (U.S. MAs are not among the world’s elite). Thus, Joshua Foer accepted the challenge and began training as a MA.
During the course of his training, as a journalist, Josh researched many aspects of human memory. He looked to the past where he found, unsurprisingly, that people used to be very good at memorizing many things. As technology advances, our memories are increasingly stored via these external devices such as books, computers, smartphones, post it notes, and most notably Google and Wikipedia. But all these ‘advances’ are not necessarily good advances as many books of late have pointed out (see my review of Hamlet’s Blackberry and The Next Story). In addition to the past, Josh examines other aspects of memory such as those who by brain damage have no memory, or those who are affected by autism who seem to remember otherwise trivial items in great detail.
This book is not a memory self-help book. Rather it is an overview of memory and a story of the author’s own pursuits to improve his memory and compete in a memory championship. This does not mean, however, that there isn’t much to be gained personally from reading this book. I was encouraged to learn about the Memory Palaces that almost all memory experts since the days of Simonides used in 300 B.C. In one chapter, as we follow the author’s experience, the reader also learns some great tips for memorizing your a lengthy to-do list, or the names of people you meet for the first time (this has already helped me out).
Unfortunately, the chapter titled “How to Memorize a Poem” (which I figured would be most personally beneficial for me in my pursuit to memorize Romans), did little to help encourage or equip me to memorize Scripture. As it turns out, almost all of the MA loathe this type of memorization because, well, it’s really really hard. Here’s the best tip from that section:
The anonymous author of the Ad Herrenium suggests that the best method for remembering poetry ad verbum (word for word) is to repeat a line two or three times before trying to see it as a series of images.
In sum, this was a very engaging and enjoyable read. I’m glad to be off to a good start on my reading for 2012… If you’re wondering just how well Josh did at the United States Memory Championship, you’ll need to read the book, I think you’ll enjoy it!
Last memory Tip:
The general idea with most memory techniques is to change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different from anything you’ve seen before that you can’t possibly forget it (pg. 91)