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The Memory That Never Was: Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein

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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.

The Amazon Alphabet: From Audio Books to Zane

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You’ve probably noticed that Amazon, like many sites, employs an “auto-complete” feature on its search box. When you start typing in letters, it suggests things that begin with those letters. It’s probably safe to assume that it suggests the most frequently searched words, so, if we look at Amazon’s book section we can type in letters and discover, for each letter of the alphabet, the most popular searches on Amazon. Last time we did this, about a year and half ago, vampires were the dominant theme. This time around, the vampires have mostly disappeared and things are perhaps a touch more literary. As we termed it last time, you might consider this exercise, the ABCs of Amazon (a peek into the reading habits of America and, like it or not, a primer for what’s popular in the world of books):

Audio Books
Charlaine Harris (ok, some vampire books are still popular)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (the very popular children’s series by Jeff Kinney)
Ebooks (a sign of the times)
Free Kindle Books (Ibid)
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Harry Potter (as if there was any doubt)
ISBN number search (funny because ISBNs work in the search box)
James Patterson
Kindle (no surprise here)
Lee Child
Mark Twain Autobiography 2010
Nora Roberts
Outliers (by Malcolm Gladwell)
Pretty Little Liars (there’s a TV show based on these)
Room (by Emma Donoghue)
Stephen King
The Help (by Kathryn Stockett)
Unbroken (by Laura Hillenbrand)
Vince Flynn
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

(Amazon has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your Amazon alphabet may vary.)

Fillet of Mockingbird in a Gladwell Reduction Sauce

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In his most recent article for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that “one way to make sense” of To Kill a Mockingbird “is to start with Big Jim Folsom.” It’s a thesis that rings all the Gladwell bells. There’s the near-nonsequiter. There’s the insistence that to understand something you thought you already understood, you have to know about something Gladwell knows about (in this case James “Big Jim” Folsom, an Alabama governor of the 1950s). And there’s the hedge, the stab at plausible deniability: well, this is only one way to do it. But on the evidence of Gladwell’s obtuse reading, starting with Big Jim Folsom is precisely not a way to make sense of Harper Lee’s novel. Rather, it is a way to make a hash of it.The flaws in Gladwell’s scorched-earth positivism, in both its rococo and its populist moods, have been so amply documented – and not only in the Letters page of The New Yorker – that it may be time for a counter-backlash. The high dudgeon with which The New Republic took Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers, to task seemed to me to miss some of the charms that have landed it on the bestseller list. Disregard the sociological claptrap, and it’s clear that Gladwell is not a scientist, but an entertainer. The pleasure we take in his arguments – in which Laban Movement Analysis becomes the key to dog training, and football to teaching, and Lawrence of Arabia to Rick Pitino, or vice versa – is the pleasure of the high wire act, or, more aptly, that of the magic show. If things go well, the audience gets a little fizz of insight. If the trick goes wrong, nobody gets hurt, because, after all, there never really was a rabbit in that hat.There is something unheimlich, however, about watching Gladwell bring his rhetorical illusionism to bear on the already illusory realm of literature. In his glib reduction of Harper Lee’s most enduring fictional creation to a “Jim Crow liberal,” he misses the forest for the trees.The raison d’être for Gladwell’s debut as a literary critic, we are told, is that “a controversy… is swirling around the book on its fiftieth anniversary.” Well, now it is. This controversy apparently has something to do with “Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism,” and to resolve it, Gladwell decides to re-open the trial of the falsely accused Tom Robinson, which is the novel’s climax. Some historical evidence is dragged in, but we will pass over in silence Gladwell’s conflation of “cases of black-on-white rape” with “allegations of black-on-white rape.” The point is to re-examine Robinson’s defense attorney, Atticus Finch.According to Gladwell, Finch has perpetrated a kind of ideological malpractice. To wit:Finch wants his white, male jurors to do the right thing. But… he dare not challenge the foundations of their privilege. Instead, Finch does what lawyers for black men did in those days. He encourages them to swap one of their prejudices for another.More galling, to Gladwell, than this refusal to bait his jury is the turn-the-other-cheek ethic underlying it. Finch tells his daughter that it is not O.K. for her to hate anyone, even Hitler. “Really? Not even Hitler?” Gladwell asks. The question would be a gratuitous flourish, except that it discloses Gladwell’s supra-rational frustration with Finch’s “hearts and minds” approach to the world’s ills. You see, this approach “is about accommodation, not reform.”If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn’t. He’s not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law.Well, obviously. Otherwise Harper Lee would have named him Thurgood Marshall, or Shmurgood Shmarshall, and would have made him a heroic civil-rights reformer. But in addition to not being Thurgood Marshall, Atticus Finch is also a fictional character. This is not a trivial observation. Contradictions, blemishes, and blind spots are to be cherished in characters (and, some would say, in real people). Indeed, one way of reading the end of the novel is not that Atticus Finch has hypocritically “decided to obstruct justice” with his crony the sheriff, as Gladwell would have it, but that he has come to see the shortcomings in the inflexible moral code for which Gladwell has earlier chided him. He has discovered that all men are not the same, that the criminal Bob Ewell (incest, assault) and the innocent Boo Radley (reclusiveness, pallor) must be held to different standards.Certainly, Finch’s notions about racial equality do not match the liberal nostrums of our day. It would be weird if they did. Moreover, they may (or may not) be Lee’s notions. To Kill a Mockingbird certainly contains more than its fare share of racial stereotypes, which, like its accommodationist view of race, are worth discussing (as are the elements of Oliver Twist that today make us cringe). A more nuanced article might have made the argument that To Kill a Mockingbird has a didactic streak, and that it puts Atticus Finch forward as an allegorical figure of enlightenment. Or that readers of the book have mistakenly read him allegorically, rather than as a human being with human limitations. Or that To Kill a Mockingbird is not a very good book, and is racist to boot. Indeed, the latter may have been Gladwell’s reaction on taking up the book again in 2009.But he hasn’t chosen to make any of those arguments. And so his triumphant conclusion – “A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism” – rankles. No, we want to say, it tells Malcolm Gladwell about Jim Crow liberalism. Slighting the novel’s achievement on account of its anachronisms is like dismissing Huckleberry Finn because of the ways Twain caricatures Jim. There are good reasons why these books are on the most-banned list; that they record liberal blind-spots is not among them.Moreover, Gladwell’s thinly veiled hostility toward To Kill a Mockingbird betrays a fundamental misapprehension about the novel, as distinct from the satire or the polemic. Following George Orwell, he seems to want novels to provoke “a change of structure” rather than “a change in spirit.” That is, he wants them not to be novels.No one is going to canonize Harper Lee as the high priestess of negative capability (just as no one would nominate Orwell for high priest.) But the durability of To Kill a Mockingbird would seem to vindicate her method. Despite the “limitations” of Atticus’ worldview, the narrative that encompasses it has – no less than the righteous rage of reformers – paved the way for an epochal, and as yet incomplete, revolution in the way Americans think about race. And unlike a legal verdict, no one can overturn it. Not even the Roberts court. Not even Malcolm Gladwell.

The ABCs of Amazon

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You may have noticed that the search box on Amazon recently added an “auto-complete” feature. So if you start typing in letters, it starts suggesting things that begin with those letters. It’s probably safe to assume that it suggests the most frequently searched words, so, if we look at Amazon’s book section we can type in letters and discover, for each letter of the alphabet, the most popular searches on Amazon. Or, if you like, the ABCs of Amazon (a peek into the reading habits of America and, like it or not, a primer for what’s popular in the world of books):Angels & DemonsBreaking Dawn (The first of several Stephenie Meyer appearances)Charlaine HarrisDan Brown (no surprise here)Eclipse (Another for Meyer)FreakonomicsGREHarry Potter (as if there was any doubt)ISBN number search (funny because ISBNs work in the search box)James PattersonKindle (natch)Lora LeighMy Sister’s Keeper (by Jodi Picoult)Nora RobertsOutliers (by Malcolm Gladwell)Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Zombies!)QuiltingRenegadeStephenie MeyerTwilight (more Meyer)UgliesVampire (You can chalk this one up to Meyer too)WickedX-MenYogaZane(Amazon has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your Amazon alphabet may vary.)

The Last of Her Kind: Women Authors and the Novel of Ideas

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This guest post comes to us Sana Krasikov. Sana is the author of the short story collection One More Year.Recently, in response to the launch of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, the literary critic Germaine Greer posed the question of why women don’t write more books about “Big Ideas.” Reaching back in time to examine Big Idea books by women, Greer wondered if women had the “necessary audacity” required to sell a hypothesis. To be fair, Greer was referring mostly to non-fiction books, but her question could just as easily be asked of fiction. Could it be true that women authors were “more interested in understanding than explaining, in describing rather than accounting for?” And does this keep them from garnering the kind of attention given to their more declarative and “audacious” male counterparts?Considering these questions, I thought about a book I had read recently – Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Last of Her Kind – a book that, in addition to being beautifully written, was as much about ideas as it was about characters. Set at the tail end of the sixties, it follows the lives of two Barnard roommates – Georgette, who is from a small town in upstate New York where people drink “to keep their bodies warm, their brains numb… a world of everyday brutality,” and Ann, an earnest overachiever from Connecticut, whose family is so wealthy that her mother doesn’t carry a wallet when she goes shopping, having expense accounts at the major department stores.Years after a bitter falling out, Georgette sees Ann’s name in the newspaper under the headline “Cop Killer.” She can hardly believe how a woman as idealistic and intelligent as Ann is capable of such violence. Though the press paints Ann as another Patty Hearst, a spoiled girl playing at Revolution, Georgette is convinced her ex-roommate’s story has a more complicated side.Delivered in a warmly sardonic but unaffected voice, the prose doesn’t draw attention to its own genius in the way of a Mailer, or to its vigor in the way of a Thomas Wolfe. For long stretches of the book, turning the pages feels less like reading and more like listening to the sane voice of an old friend. And yet as much as it’s a story of two women, The Last of Her Kind is really an extended essay – a sober examination of the darker rhetoric of the sixties.Here is a scene: Many years after she is raped, Georgette is invited by a professor who is a friend to discuss the experience with a group of college girls in the professor’s Women’s Studies class. Too uncomfortable to turn down her friend’s request, Georgette tells the young women that, looking back on life, she could point to many things that happened later which were worse than the rape, and which even made it seem like a minor event in her life. The students respond by telling her that she is “in denial” and “intellectualizing,” and in need of “emotional work” to understand the extent of her repression. The present-day framework of “trauma and recovery” makes it impossible for girls who came of age in the nineties to comprehend how, in the highly-politicized sixties, rape might have been viewed as an “insurrectionary act,” or how in some fringes of the sexual revolution, women might have thought it rude to sleep with only one man if there were two men in the room.Rather than recalling the late-sixties and early-seventies as a progressive or enlightened moment, Nunez paints an age that left many casualties in its wake: a time when someone like Charles Manson could be hailed as a hero, a time when college professors received death-threats from radical students, a time when sex could be “not just a casual, but a meaningless act.” Describing her sister’s boyfriend, Georgette observes, “Roach looked like what he was, a survivor of an era that had tipped over into madness.”The Last of Her Kind has been compared to Roth’s American Pastoral But a more apt comparison might be to Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Georgette’s disappointment with the mythic sixties reminds one of Lessing’s narrator’s disillusionment with the “glorious adventure” of socialism and the British Communist Party in the 1950s. Both novels are nods to George Elliot’s Middlemarch, which concerns itself not only with the souls of its characters but also with a larger, and more sweeping project of recording social history. All these books, written by women who explored politics and morality as two sides of one phenomenon, gain their effect not from proclamations, but from a kind of layering affect where ideas about class, altruism, and gender-relations are asserted, knocked down and revised at different stages of their character’s lives.In the last pages of the book, a grown-up Georgette rants against that sacrosanct American novel, The Great Gatsby, which her teenage children are studying in school.I think it is significant that The Great Gatsby’s reputation as the greatest masterpiece of the twentieth-century American literature did not blossom until the fifties, and that those most responsible for that reputation have been schoolteachers. It is such an easy book to teach. Short, clear, safe. What makes Gatsby “great”? How does Gatsby represent the American dream? What does the green light symbolize? What does the valley of ashes symbolize? What do the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg symbolize? Compare and contrast: East Egg/West Egg. Jay Gatsby/Tom Buchanan. New York/The Middle West.In many ways, The Last of Her Kind attempts to be precisely the kind of novel that is not Gatsby – a book with ideas that resists being summarized into one Big Idea – in other words a book for adults.



Sam Sacks offers up a review of Booker winner The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga for Open Letters”Obama spotted carrying poetry book” – It was Collected Poems 1948-1984 by Derek WalcottThe amazing, exhaustive, 7-part, behind-the-scenes look at the 2008 campaign from NewsweekRahm, Ari, Zeke: Which Emmanuel brother are you?In case you weren’t already tired of this… the n+1 vs. the lit-blogs row of early 2007 lands in an academic journal. Our own contribution to the saga is duly noted.Wyatt Mason offers more thoughts on John Leonard (via Conversational Reading)Malcolm Gladwell’s latest, The Outliers, hits stores a week from today. Gladwell introduces the book in a video at Amazon (scroll down a bit).Oxford researchers figure out the ten most annoying phrases.And the New Oxford American Dictionary has named its Word of the Year: hypermiling.As we remember Michael Crichton, “The Top 5 ‘Crazy’ Michael Crichton Ideas That Actually Came True“Nam Le wins the Dylan Thomas Prize. We interviewed him in August.

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