While Moonwalking with Einstein isn’t a new book — it was published in 2011 — I only just got around to reading it. The book’s subtitle is “The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” and it uses modern day memory competitions as the hook for examining the history, cultural significance and to some degree science of memory. I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t done so already!
There is lots to like here. First, Joshua doesn’t just cover memory competitions from a bystander’s perspective — he throws himself headlong into participating which makes for a very engaging story. Second, the book has many terrific character portraits in it, including the wonderful Ed Cooke whom I have come to know quite well as the founder of Memrise (a London-based education startup) and who is an occasional commenter here on Continuations. Third, Moonwalking provides and excellent perspective on the importance of memory at a time when many are further rejecting it in an age where information is just a search query away. I keep telling my children that the reason I find it easy to remember new things is because I already know a lot of old things.
There are two areas in which I wish the book had a gone a bit deeper. The first is using memory techniques to remember modern bodies of knowledge (the memory contests themselves are largely about remembering numbers, decks of cards and somewhat more usefully names and other info about people). There is a tantalizing substory about a teacher in the Bronx who uses memory techniques to help his students do well on the Regents exams (and the students also compete) but it is not clear if those students continue to have an advantage. The second area in which I would have loved to see more is a bit more modern neuro science on memory. I don’t know much about this myself and am just learning about neural networks (which are models) but it seems that memory is related to "recurrent" networks (ones that loop back onto themselves).
Knowing Ed (and through Ed having met Joshua at a dinner in London) made reading the book even more fun for me. And it reminded me that I had previously met a memory champion when a friend of mine was dating Tatiana Cooley who won the US Memory Championships two or three years in a row in the late 90s. Even without that context though the book is so engagingly written that my thirteen year old son who just picked it up immediately plowed through the first couple of chapters.
Now please excuse me as I go off and use Memrise to learn some memory techniques so I can finally remember more of the names of the team members at USV portfolio companies!