A mind to remember
By Alyssa McDonald
Published 08 January 2009
Joshua Foer, Writer and USA Memory Champion
If you were looking for evidence of a literary gene, the three Foer brothers’ collective CV would be a persuasive place to start. Jonathan Safran Foer, the middle sibling, is a celebrated Brooklyn-based novelist while the eldest brother, Franklin, is editor of the New Republic and author of How Football Explains the World. Now there is the youngest Foer, Joshua. His first book, Moonwalking With Einstein, an examination of “the art and science of memory”, is not published until this autumn. But the buzz about it has been growing since 2006, when, at the age of 23, he received an advance of $1.2m on the strength of his proposal.
The film rights were also sold long ago. It may be only a small way of changing the world, but Foer’s exploration of our ability to recollect experiences and abstract ideas will raise important questions about the function of memory, and its role in a society where mass publishing and wireless internet can do so much of its work.
By the time the bidding war started, Foer – a Yale-educated science journalist also based in Brooklyn – was already writing for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the online current affairs magazine Slate. Moonwalking began as a short article for Slate about the USA Memory Championships, a peculiar event at which “mental athletes” compete with one another to recall 300-digit binary numbers and the order of packs of shuffled cards. Foer describes it as “less clash of the Titans than revenge of the nerds”. But while observing the event, he became interested by the competitors’ insistence that they weren’t naturally gifted, but had used mnemonic techniques to hone their skills of recall. So he entered the championship – “as a sort of exercise in participatory journalism” – and won, breaking US records for memorisation at the same time.
“I became a little bit obsessed with my memory training,” he explains. The technique he used is a window on to a preliterate culture of memory. As he explained in his original piece for Slate, the human mind is best equipped to retain memories of real objects, so by associating abstract ideas with vivid spatial and visual images, it becomes easier to memorise swaths of them. This was a technique prized by classical and medieval scholars such as Cicero and St Thomas Aquinas, who used it as the means to improve oratory and piety. Foer has turned his eccentric talent to more productive goals. Moonwalking broadens out into a historical and scientific examination of his subject. He shares his brother Franklin’s dry wit, but also has warmth and enthusiasm. And, as a major in evolutionary biology, Joshua has an uncluttered ease with scientific detail that brings complex technical subjects to life. In National Geographic he described the illness that had left EP, an elderly man whose short-term memory does not extend back beyond his latest thought, in terms as visceral as the condition itself: “The herpes simplex virus chewed its way through his brain, coring it like an apple. By the time the virus had run its course, two walnut-size chunks of brain matter in the medial temporal lobes had disappeared, and with them most of EP’s memory.”
Foer says his brothers had little direct influence on him. “The reason I became a journalist has much more to do with Fred Strebeigh, a writing professor I had in college, who was also a science journalist and encouraged me in that direction.” And no, Franklin did not open doors, though they share a past at Slate: “Frank had worked there for a year or two as an editorial assistant in Seattle . . . but was several years gone by the time I started there in the Washington office.”
The book is still in the final stages of editing, but Foer has already taken on a variety of new projects – the most developed of which is a website, due to launch in the spring, showcasing “all the curious, wondrous and bizarre places that are just below the radar of more conventional travel guides”. He has ruled out a return to science (“I figured pretty early on that I didn’t have the temperament”) but is keeping his options open. “I don’t think I’m wedded to writing,” he says. “It just happens to be a good vehicle for my interests right now. I could definitely imagine doing something else.”