Last year was something. We saw the true nature of our country come into sharp undeniable focus. Systemic racism, public health, and polarization on a grand scale were just some of the things that demanded my attention more than my goal to read 50 books in 2020. I'm not mad about failing to meet my goal. I look back to try to remember the substance I read, and my memory fails me.
As we round the corner and enter a new year, I won't let those issues that came to the surface sink back beneath into the murky depths of the great American attention span. Instead, I'm committing here to document the conversation unfolding in front of me, along with things I've learned through supplemental reading along the way.
Not how things used to be
My first read of the new year profoundly changed my perspective on memorization and the internalization of memory.
I'm someone who is constantly documenting, taking notes, and writing on a to-do list. I find that my memory doesn't serve to recall information through a perfect lens. I consistently rely on Google Maps, even though I'm just picking up carryout down the block. After finishing, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Josh Foer, I realized that I'm deeply embedded in the culture that inspired this book.
In the days of early Western civilization, people were celebrated as great people of their time for their ability to rattle off facts, figures, and quotes from prominent literature. We're rewarded for our ability to navigate an ever-expanding web of information systems and technologies in modern times. Our praise has shifted from internalization to externalization of information.
As Foer writes, "Imagine waking up tomorrow and discovering that all the world's ink had become invisible and all our bytes has disappeared. Our world would immediately crumble. Literature, music, law, politics, science, math: Our culture is an edifice built of externalized memories."
Diving right in
What inspired me to keep reading was Foer's commitment to experiential journalism. He unearthed an interest in the "sport of memory" while covering the U.S. Memory Championship in 2005. With the coaxing of Ed Cooke, a Grand Master of Memory himself, Josh sets out to see he can tangibly improve his memory enough to compete in the circuit. It's one thing to write a non-fiction book on a topic that you've heavily researched. It's entirely another to dive in headfirst and experience it for yourself, writing about the process all along the way.
From spraypainted glasses and industrial ear muffs to memorizing long lists of numbers in his parents' basement, Foer commits to understanding what this sport is all about. Little by little, he finds himself taking down yellow square after yellow square from his wall of post-its.
What started as a passing curiousity, turns into something more and Josh learns that, "Memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it's about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human."
This book is more than a non-fiction account of the sport of memory. It sparked something in me that felt deeply intimate. In the world we live in today, in which it's hard even to keep track of the next headline, it turned my focus to the very root of our society. It provides a stark warning about the continued externalization of knowledge. It makes me reconsider what it means to be intelligent.
If you're looking for something practical to read that will make you reconsider how you go about your daily life, this is the book for you.
Pick up a copy on Thriftbooks.
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