But the devaluation of memory has deeper cultural implications: Fully two-thirds of American teenagers do not know when the Civil War occurred; one-fifth don’t have a clue whom we fought in World War II. Why waste brain cells on remembering when we can summon facts so easily on our cellphones?
Now comes science writer Joshua Foer — a formerly absent-minded young man who became the 2006 U.S. memory champion — to argue that in exchange for scientific progress, we may have traded away our most valuable human resource. Can you name the 44 American presidents? Can you list the capitals of all 50 states? Chances are you can’t. And yet if you can read this review, your brain may have the capacity to recall 50,000 digits of pi, permanently commit to memory 96 historical facts in the course of five minutes, maybe even memorize every line of Yeats’s mammoth poem “The Wanderings of Oisin.”
“Anyone could do it, really,” says the reigning world memory champion, Ben Pridmore. More likely, if you are like the rest of us, you will spend — according to Foer — a staggering average of 40 days a year making up for everything you’ve forgotten.
Foer, who was born in Washington, is the brother of former New Republic editor Franklin Foer and novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. He chanced upon the U.S. Memory Championships in Manhattan in 2005 while doing research for a story about Pridmore. “The scene I stumbled on,” he writes, “was something less than a class of titans: a bunch of guys (and a few ladies), widely varying in both age and hygienic upkeep, poring over pages of random numbers and long lists of words.” One year later, after grueling months of training, Foer won that competition by memorizing a set of 52 cards in one minute and 40 seconds, breaking the American record. But the book that he offers us is far more than a personal chronicle of that triumph.
Devalued though human memory has become, it is what makes us who we are. Our memories, Foer tells us, are the seat of civilization, the bedrock of wisdom, the wellspring of creativity. His passionate and deeply engrossing book, “Moonwalking With Einstein,” means to persuade us that we shouldn’t surrender them to integrated circuits so easily. It is a resounding tribute to the muscularity of the mind.