Late last summer, I read Nicholson Baker’s U & I, which, though I can’t recall the reasons, I can’t recommend enough. Published in 1991, U & I chronicles Baker’s obsessive fascination with that most pale of prose geniuses, John Updike, even while admitting he is by no means a completist and hasn’t read all of Updike’s books. I was visiting my then-girlfriend in New York while reading U & I, and from the first sentence I was so devoted that one day I carried it onto the subway between Manhattan and Brooklyn, where I was meeting an old friend to watch football and drink beer. I could barely endure the torturously hot subway station, though, and as I waited for my train in the heat I felt like I had hot coals tucked into my armpits. The subway car, by contrast, was so cool and Baker’s self-deprecations so engrossing that I remember this brief period (probably something like a half hour) as one of the most pleasurable reading experiences of my entire life.
The problem now is my absent memory of Baker’s book. I can conjure up an image of its cover, which isn’t, frankly, all that memorable, but my mental storage unit is empty when I go looking for eloquent Bakerisms. Second, even the “plot,” such as it is with Nicholson Baker, escapes me. I vaguely remember Baker explaining how his mother had a conniption fit laughing at some humorous essay of Updike’s, a piece where he described a divot in a golf course being “big as a t-shirt.” I also have a foggy memory of Baker meeting Updike at some Harvard gathering, where he allows Updike to believe that he—Baker—also attended that august institution. It goes further. I can’t remember Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine, either, although I read it last summer, too. His most recent novel, The Anthologist, which I devoured after A Box of Matches, another Baker book, also remains mostly sunk, like an iceberg, in the warming waters of my brain. All that is solid melts into air, as Marx (or whoever) said. I supposedly read these four Nicholson Baker books less than twelve months ago, and now my dominant memory is a section in The Mezzanine that describes the various sounds adult men make while defecating in corporate bathrooms. I recall that the word “spatterings” appears in all its horrifying, onomatopoeic glory, but remember the poop joke is not my most cherished literary principle.
There isn’t any inherent reason to worry about forgetfulness, of course. Reading is reading; what you remember can seem a gift and what you forget just one of many things that, slipping away, never did you any harm. But—as a reader, as a teacher, and as a PhD student in the thick of preparations for my comprehensive exams—a large part of the pleasure (and struggle) I experience with books relates directly to my capacity to remember the words that appear in them. And despite the fine arguments of writers like Joshua Foer in his recent Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, I’m not looking for brute memorization, i.e. Xeroxing Shakespeare’s complete works with my brain. I keep notes when it counts, after all.
Perhaps it’s from reading too much (lately, it’s felt like too much, as I burn through a booklist that is supposed to represent the foundation for my future academic career), but the best tactic is to rely on the accidental art of memory, which patterns information organically, without much pre-set strategy. When I recently read an essay on ruins by Geoff Dyer, for example, his comment that the remains of ancient buildings suggest the triumph of space over time reminded me immediately of a passage from W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz that I thought I had forgotten: “We know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.” Now, I hope, I’ll remember both these poetic conclusions. This kind of recall depends, actually, on the same digressive energy that both Dyer and Sebald lean on in their writing. And anyway, the great virtue of underlining sentences in the books you read is the opposite of what it seems to be: you’re giving yourself permission to forget all the non-underlined bits. As I become more comfortable with the forgetting, I realize the shape of the remembering.
The situation actually seems both grimmer and more hopeful when I glance at the list of books I’ve already read thus far in 2011. There are 31 books there, and I can remember, on average, a single line or phrase from probably 11 of them. For others—particularly for books which make a sustained argument—I can remember the logic of the thinking, but would have to go back to my notes to recall the specific turns of vocabulary that make the arguments stick. On the one hand, it seems like terrific luck to have retained particular lines at all. On the other, I can’t help but feel sad in the face Harold Bloom’s prodigious memory. In a recent video interview with The New York Times, Bloom reeled off some lines of Hart Crane’s poetry with such perfect rhythm and confidence I felt equal parts charmed and inspired to jealous rage, which is not the point of (most) Modernist poetry.
But if the issue is my happiness as a reader, I take comfort in a quotation provided by critic Eric Santner in his 2006 book, On Creaturely Life, a study of, among other writers, W.G. Sebald. Santner mentions, as an aside, a comment from philosopher Jonathan Lear, who writes that “…we need to go back to an older English usage of happiness in terms of happenstance: the experience of chance things working out well rather than badly.” Happiness as good luck makes perfect sense, particularly if you think of the word hapless, which roughly means luckless, without hap. So, by contrast, to be lucky, is—by substitution—to be happy. In other languages, like German and Dutch, lucky and happy already go by the same word. That I or anyone else is fortunate enough to remember whatever books we’ve read therefore appears to be a textbook case of happiness. Even so glorious a wet blanket as Friedrich Nietzsche already had some sense of happiness as this game of chance. In Beyond Good and Evil, he comments, “a thought comes when ‘it’ wants, not when ‘I’ want.” Thought, like memory, has its own life; we are just its devotees. If a German philosopher who proclaimed the death of God can find the exit door here, then I’ll take the accidental hap of memory, if nothing else.
This is all such a stupid luxury, of course, hand-wringing over the proper way to read and remember. And the picture of the reading life and its haunted memory that I prefer now is from the book I have just finished: Geoff Dyer’s novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. In the second half of the novel, the unnamed narrator observes two fellow travelers and friends and comments, “Earlier that day, as I was coming back from Manikarnika in a boat, I’d glanced up at the terrace of the Lotus Lounge and seen them there, arms round each other. As the boat skulked upstream, I looked up from time to time like some sad fuck in a Henry James novel, relieved that they’d not seen me seeing them.” Even if he can’t remember which sad fuck, the narrator’s memory tells him that he’s part of a grand tradition. How lucky.
(Image by C. Max Magee)
While writing my very first blurb recently – it was for an old friend’s new book about the creation of America’s interstate highways – I was delighted to discover that this otherwise very strong piece of work had just two weak points. One was the title, The Big Roads, which strikes me as a big snore. The other was the subtitle, a panting pileup of purplish prose: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.
Suddenly, every time I walked into a bookstore or read a review, I started noticing similarly breathless subtitles. What had struck me initially as an unfortunate decision by the publisher of The Big Roads now began to look like a full-blown trend. Two books in particular fed this dawning revelation – Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost At Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them; and Man Down!: Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt That Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fun Managers, and Just About Everything Else.
After discovering dozens of run-on subtitles, I naturally began to wonder what was at work here. My initial theory was that this sudden gush of wordiness is a natural by-product of book publishing’s desperate times. In a marketplace glutted with too many titles – and in a culture that makes books more marginal by the day – publishers seem to think that if they just shout loudly enough, people will notice their products, then buy them. In other words, the run-on subtitle is literature’s equivalent of flop sweat, that stinky slime that coats the skin of every comedian, actor and novelist who has ever gotten ready to step in front of a live audience knowing, in the pit of his stomach, that he’s going to bomb. But when I asked around, my flop sweat theory started to hold less and less water.
John Valentine co-founded The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C., more than thirty years ago. Since then he has helped build it into a beloved cultural institution in the so-called “Triangle” of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, where there just might be more writers per-capita than in any other place on the planet outside select zip codes in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“I’d say about three years ago I started noticing more words on covers, more buzzwords,” Valentine told me when I dropped by the shop recently. When I ran my flop sweat theory past him, he shook his head. “I think it’s driven by Search – with a capital S – whether it’s Google or Amazon or whatever. A lot of our customers hear about books on NPR, and when they come in the store they can’t always remember the author or the title. The more words a customer might remember, the more keywords we can use to Google it. If a word is rather unique, we’re more likely to find it. With the river of books – with the river of everything – most people want to have more unique words associated with their product.”
Most people, maybe, but not all people. Valentine has noticed another trend running counter to the run-on subtitle. “The converse of it,” he says, “is publishers and authors who feel confident. They tend to go small.” He waved at several examples on a shelf near the front of the store – Cleopatra: A Life by Pulitzer-Prize winner Stacy Schiff; Just Kids by Patti Smith, which won a National Book Award; Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan; Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III; and Life by Keith Richards. It doesn’t get much more concise than that. Maybe It by Stephen King.
And there are exceptions to Valentine’s theory. Simon Winchester, who scored a major hit in 2005 with The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, has just published Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories. Maybe Winchester simply believes in sticking with a winning formula. Tina Rosenberg, who has won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, is out with Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World.
While not overly wordy, Rosenberg’s subtitle falls into what I call the “Tao of How” category – books that promise to show us how the world really works, and how we can use that knowledge to transform our humdrum lives into epic experiences full of bliss, friends, great sex, wisdom and/or bags of money. Recent efforts include Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think and Do by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler; and Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.
While working as an editor at Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Eamon Dolan bought the concept that eventually became The Big Roads. Dolan, who has since become vice president and editor-in-chief at The Penguin Press, contends that verbose subtitles have always been with us and probably always will be. He also believes that subtitles have become an especially valuable marketing tool in our digital age, echoing John Valentine’s theory.
“I’d say that subtitles are important enough to the success of a nonfiction book that hardly any such book is published without one,” Dolan said in an e-mail. “Traditionally (and still), the subtitle explicitly states the book’s subject and purpose and implicitly tries to signal who its audience is. In the 21st century, the subtitle has a more pointed intent as well – to offer keywords that might come up in web searches. While we do not design subtitles with this particular goal in mind, it is a use that suggests subtitles are as essential now as ever they were.”
Dolan doesn’t believe you can judge the effectiveness of a subtitle merely by looking at its length. Some pithy ones are perfect, he contends, while a long freight train can be just as effective. To prove his point, Dolan cites the very different subtitles on two books he edited. “A favorite subtitle of mine right now is the one for Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer – The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Its lyricism, clarity and faux-grandiosity beautifully and efficiently convey the book’s ambitious scope and endearing tone. Often the author, editor, publisher, et al, brainstorm and/or wrangle at length over titles and subtitles, but these came directly from the author even before the manuscript was complete. And we knew right away that we couldn’t improve on them. Brevity is often a goal in this realm because shorter subtitles enter the mind more readily and are easier to incorporate into a jacket design.”
That said, he added, “Another of my favorite subtitles is an exception that proves the rule. Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis was subtitled Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. It’s double-wide, to be sure, but it earns every inch of the real estate it takes up. I love how its two halves rub against each other in a way that sparks a reader’s interest. How could such lofty qualities as heartbreak, genius, etc., arise in such a nerdy arena as a Scrabble contest? To me, and to many, many other readers, this has proven an irresistible question.”
That sweaty wrestling match Dolan describes – the author, editor, publisher, et al, locked in a room wrangling over potential titles and subtitles – is familiar to most authors of non-fiction books, and to more than a few writers of fiction. But when Malcolm Jones, a culture writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, was getting ready to publish a memoir, the wrestling match was fairly painless. “On my book, we – I think this discussion finally involved my editor, agent and wife – we tried a subtitle but it just sounded like a second title,” Jones said by e-mail. “So we figured we’d label it ‘a memoir’ and let people work it out. This, of course, resulted in the stampede of sales.” The book’s cover is elegant in its simplicity, just the words Little Boy Blues: A Memoir and a photograph of the author at the age of 10 or so, reading a newspaper and pretending to smoke an unlit pipe, the picture of future literary sophistication. It echoes the beautiful economy of the cover of Experience: A Memoir by Martin Amis, which shows the author as a tow-headed pre-teen with a scowl on his face and a cigarette clenched between his lips. That scowl and that cigarette leave no doubt that this is one bad, bad lad.
Why is such gorgeous restraint the exception in contemporary publishing? “I’m tempted to go with your flop sweat theory,” Jones says. “Having made the initial error to publish way more than they should, publishers cravenly attempt at the last minute to adorn their hundreds of titles with some sham distinction in the baseless hope that, yes, this will attract a reader or two. Or maybe some of it has to do with playing to the computer’s power to aggregate. I wish this were more far-fetched than it sounds.”
Which brings us, finally, to Earl Swift, my friend who wrote The Big Roads. He describes the creation of the book’s title and subtitle not as a wrestling match but as a “collaborative process” between himself, his editors and the publishing house’s marketing people. In the end, they agreed on a title that they felt was less opaque and more self-explanatory than the dozens of possibilities they’d bounced back and forth.
“Some publishers go for short titles so that you can stack the words vertically on the cover,” says Swift, the author of three previous non-fiction books. “That allows you to go with bigger type and give the book more visual impact. But some short titles are so obscure or general that they require amplification.”
When it came time to compose a subtitle that would help readers understand what The Big Roads was about, Swift said his main goal was to debunk a common misconception. “I thought we had to telegraph to potential readers that they don’t know the story as well as they think they do. You say ‘interstate highways’ and most people immediately think ‘Eisenhower.’ So I thought we had to signal that the people responsible for those highways are people you’ve probably never heard of.”
And so it came to pass that author and publisher agreed on a subtitle that might have once sounded breathless to me but, on second thought, actually does accomplish what it set out to do. It alerts readers to the fact that our interstate highways did not pop fully formed out of Dwight Eisenhower’s vacuous skull. For that reason, among many others, I hope the book sells faster than Krispy Kremes.
(Image: Untitled from joost-ijmuiden’s photostream)
No one knows why we have brains. We take for granted the brain’s associated functions—emotion, contemplation, special awareness, memory—and yet the reason some life on earth has a brain and other life doesn’t is an unanswerable question. Daniel Wolpert, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, theorizes the fundamental purpose of our brains is to govern movement, something necessary to humans but which trees and flowers can live without.
Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is a brief and pithy recounting of Foer’s exploration of the fuzzy borders of his brain—a marveling at how and why it’s able to do something quite unexpected. Foer is a science writer and enthusiast of curiosities who’s worked for Discover, Slate, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Esquire. Moonwalking with Einstein is a chronicle of his year training to compete in the U.S. Memory Championships—an arcane competition among adherents to the method of loci, an ancient memory technique that makes it possible to retain great volumes of random information.
According to the theory, more commonly known as the Memory Palace, the human brain is capable of retaining huge amounts of information subconsciously. Details about color, texture, light, smell, and spatial arrangement are all absorbed in an instant, whether or not we’re aware of it. But we lose all the less immediate information, even when we want to remember: telephone numbers disappear, faces lose their names, and the year the Mexican-American War is irretrievable.
According to the method of the Memory Palace, first formulated by the Greek poet Simonedes, hard-to-retain facts can be pinned in place by transforming them into visual icons in an imagined location. Each fact would become a representative image–the more bizarre and lascivious the better. These images would be placed in a childhood home or a college dormitory, any intimately remembered location. In this way memory becomes a process of traveling through a non-sequitur mental landscape instead of a flailing for disappearing facts.
In mid-2005 Foer was a struggling, young writer living in his parents’ house in suburban Washington D.C. trying to make a living as a freelance writer. After a chance visit at the Weightlifting Hall of Fame, Foer started wondering if there was a Hall of Fame for smart people. Some cursory searches led him to the U.S. Memory Championships, where a small and eccentric group of mental athletes compete at memorizing long strings of two-digit numbers, the order of cards in a deck, and matching 99 faces and names after five minutes of exposure.
Ed Cooke, a confident young British competitor with a roving imagination, tells Foer that these seemingly impressive feats are within anyone’s grasp. Even Foer could become a competitor. Foer decides to test the theory and accepts Cooke’s tutelage. As he begins his training routine, picking locations for his own memory palaces and building a network of imagery to associate with various playing cards and number combinations, Foer also intersperses a survey of the brain’s biology and some of its strangest outliers.
He starts with the Greeks who considered memorization an essential part of human learning. “The great oral works transmitted a shared cultural heritage held in common not on bookshelves, but in brains,” Foer writes. One literally internalized philosophers’ arguments, histories, and poems. Knowledge didn’t come through exposure but through rumination and concise mastery born out of recall. Today we know where to look for answers, but the Greeks carried the answers within as instantly recallable memories.
The extent to which we’ve delegated the workings of memory to Google prompts a scary question about our culture. “What we’ve gained is indisputable. But what have we traded away? What does it mean that we’ve lost our memory?” It’s a sensational question and Foer–wittingly or not—proves our memories are mostly constant, and there isn’t actually a dramatic difference in mental capacity between memory champions and everyone else.
Before beginning his memory training Foer visits K. Anders Ericsson, a professor and researcher at Florida State University’s Department of Psychology. Foer describes Anderson as the “expert expert,” most popular for his theory that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field, an idea Malcolm Gladwell helped popularize in Outliers. Anderson and his aids spend three days studying Foer before his training, and again a year later after he has set the U.S. record by memorizing the order of a deck of cards in 1 minute and 42 seconds.
While Foer’s ability to recall numbers has increased more than two-fold, his functional memory—the everyday process that’s not given the luxury of palaces and non-sequitur burlesques—remains largely identical. In fact, Foer recalls taking the subway home after a dinner in downtown D.C. with friends to celebrate his achievement. Upon getting back to his parents’ house he remembered that he’d actually driven to the dinner and had left his car parked downtown without any further thought.
One of the overarching questions in Moonwalking with Einstein, then, is not whether we’ve been impoverished by the fleeing of memory techniques, but rather why memory masters don’t seem to gain any irrefutable benefits from leading their field. Indeed, Foer describes a few people with brains predisposed to having powerful memories in dysfunctional terms.
There is S., a Russian journalist in the late 1920’s who never took notes in editorial meetings and still remembered addresses, names, and instructions perfectly. He was the subject of a seminal neuropsychological study on the brain and memory, and yet he had trouble holding a job and experienced many of the same traits that would later be ascribed to autistic savants.
Then there is Kim Peek, the Utah man who memorized phonebooks and was the inspiration for the movie Rain Man. Peek’s memory didn’t need the rigorous training and discipline practiced by mental athletes. And yet he required a caretaker (his father) all his life and never held a job or moved beyond the thrill of memorizing town populations and mountain elevations.
Foer acknowledges the perversity required to take a normally functioning memory and force it to work more like Peek’s or S’s. At one point he has to stop using the image of his grandmother in his card memorizing routine because the vulgar actions he subjects her to are too disturbing. Cooke similarly excised his mother from his practice, preferring instead celebrities and sports figures who can be contorted, defiled, and penetrated without rippling any darker waters.
In order to memorize faster and in greater volume, one has to push one’s brain to the outer limits of incoherence. To create a record of external order the memorizer must make a non-sequitur carnival of their inner orders, connecting a 5 of Clubs to the image of Dom DeLuise karate kicking Pope Benedict XVI, or a queen of spades to Rhea Perlman anally penetrating ex-NBA star Manute Bol. What rescues these discrepant fantasies is the tie to a rather dull system of real world meanings, which might not have been worth remembering in any case.
What’s most interesting about Foer’s book is not its value as an idea exploration—he well documents how the Memory Palace has already been exploited by salesman and self-promoters—but in the kernel of a confession about his own life. Foer describes Moonwalking With Einstein as participatory journalism, but he never gets very far in describing who he is and what lay beneath the ordered surface of his account as a grown man living with his parents, trying to make a career out of writing stories about the country’s largest popped corn kernel, whilst privately carrying on a year-long project of memorizing random number strings aided by a pair of blackout goggles.
Foer writes in a conversational but distant vernacular, like someone telling a curious story at a cocktail party and all the while talking around the less entertaining truths below the surface. His describes Perlman’s and Bol’s encounter as a “highly explicit (and in this case, anatomically improbable) two-digit act of congress.” It’s belabored for comic effect, but the obfuscation deadens the image itself, scandalizing something that is a natural product of Foer’s creativity.
In this regard, Moonwalking With Einstein fits handily inline with the recent tradition of “big idea” books that take a breezy survey of scientific inquiry and discover some general truisms. In place of George Plimpton’s lyrical self-awareness it has Gladwell’s impersonal concision and Steven Johnson’s sense of portent without quite proving anything. Given enough time, all science writing—no matter how casually or clinically it is presented—winds up being wrong. Likewise, any work of participatory journalism that finds the undertaking more interesting than the author is bound for obscurity. What endures is the record of the human experience not the best scientific explanations our generation—and one’s past—could come up with.
Foer is moving all around some of the most personal ideas in human experience–the intersection of the erotic imagination, nostalgia, lust for new experiences, and the tiny electrical impulses that accompany them. When Foer wonders if the loss of poetic immersion once common in antiquity is debilitating today, I immediately think of Lolita. “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”
As with Wolpert’s theory that the brain is necessary for movement, Foer describes the idea that everything we understand in the world is built on the recorded images of the past. This is how we can all have such different experiences of fixed historical events—the election of a president or two hours in a movie theater. This is why both the places that form the locus of memory, and the ghostly signifiers that populate them, are unique to the holder of the memory–always a childhood home or school. And yet all we are ever doing is moving from one place to the other, creating muscle memory for a neuron to send out an electrical pilgrim from one place to another.
When I criticize Foer for being impersonal, it is a product of my own confessional instincts. My own writing is the kind of memoiristic turning of the embers that has become a cliché in an age of blogs and self-published novels by thrift shop dilettantes, who seek to prove themselves by bending the non-sequitur memory into something sensible; an image that will survive with or without its associated deck of cards.
In the same way that science writing winds up being wrong in some way or another, few of my own scraps of memory have been true. There is always some detail wrong. I once described an ex-girlfriend with black hair. “I have brown hair,” she wrote me after reading it. I’d moved across the country for her so hair color was a painful thing to get wrong. Likewise, the details of my childhood, travels, career, who was there during big events in my life—these details are all less there than I think. So too Foer’s mnemonic Greeks, who remembered The Odyssey in the broad strokes but varied the details and line orders while still thinking they had it syllable for syllable.
When I try and pull a specific image through the blurred depth of field time sets in between, I find the need to invent something becomes instinctual, almost thoughtless. This is the spirit moving through Foer’s book, the Albert Einstein who moonwalks down an empty suburban hallway—a figure that never was, now a memory that can’t be erased.
My book, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books is out today (more on that here), and also out this week is Joshua Foer’s (the latest of the Foer’s to throw his hat in the authorial ring) Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, buzzed about food memoir Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, a new look at the modern world’s most ubiquitous commodity James Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, Library of America boxing anthology At The Fights: American Writers on Boxing, Mat Johnson’s Poe-inspired Pym, and Victoria Patterson’s This Vacant Paradise. New in Paperback: Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask and Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered.