Friday, July 6, 2012

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

The subtitle of this book is “The Science of Remembering Everything” and I was hoping it would give me tips on how to memorize poetry and scripture.  It turned out to be the story of a journalist who spent a year training to participate in the U. S. Memory Championship, an Olympics-style event for mental athletes.  The book is not a training manual as much as it is a memoir. 

So why am I recommending Moonwalking with Einstein? Because if you are mildly interested in the history of language or of education, you’ll find this book fascinating.  Have you ever wondered why the Bible was originally written down without punctuation?  Foer explains that early manuscripts were transcribed by men who had memorized their contents.  The words were not separated by spaces or punctuation because they were not meant to be read for understanding.  They were to be skimmed to remind the reader of what he already knew.

Since sight-reading scriptio continua was difficult, reciting a text aloud with fluency required a reader to have a degree of familiarity with it. . . . He had to prepare with it, punctuate it in his mind, memorize it - in part, if not in full – because turning a string of sounds into meaning was not something you could do easily on the fly.  The text had to be learned before it could be performed. (p. 224)

Interestingly, when the Bible was later published with chapter divisions and punctuation (and soon after with concordances), it assumed that the reader would be able to access certain passages WITHOUT having memorized them previously.   We gained accessibility at the loss of total absorption.

As books became easier and easier to consult, the imperative to hold their contents in memory became less and less relevant, and the very notion of what it meant to be erudite began to evolve from possessing information internally to knowing where to find information in the labyrinthine world of external memory. (p. 231)

Now we put a premium on reading quickly and widely, and that breeds a kind of superficiality in our reading, and in what we seek to get out of books. . . .[Yet] if something is going to be made memorable, it has to be dwelled upon, repeated. (p. 233)

People used to read intensively.  They had only a few books – the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two – and they read they over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness.  (p. 234) But now with the profusion of printed material, they read extensively, and with very little retention.

Although, Moonwalking with Einstein did not meet my need for memorization tips, it did encourage me to pursue my goal of more focused concentration on poetic and biblical passages.


Janet said...

This sounds like it hits on some things that are important to me, too. Thanks for the review!

Sherry said...

I really want to read this book, or at least skim through it quickly and superficially :)