Volume 79 | Issue 6
November 2011

ACUI Reads: "Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art of Remembering Everything"

Reviewed by Rick Gardner

Joshua Foer found himself writing an unusual magazine article on the National and World Memory Championships. After documenting his experience, Foer was so motivated that he decided to challenge himself by training and competing in both competitions the following year. “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art of Remembering Everything” chronicles the journey from spectator to U.S. national champion and documents the knowledge gained in the process.

“Moonwalking” covers the history of memory and the transition from the spoken word to written word through epic stories such as the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” Foer traces many of the techniques used by today’s memory champions to a book called “Rhetorica Ad Herennium” by Cicero, a great Roman orator. Foer’s book is not meant to be a self-help book; however, for me, it served as a wake-up call.

The tricks of the trade Foer outlines are of particular use for those who work in college unions. For example, make things “stick.” Your memory is more successful the more creative you are with images. Use “memory palaces” to visualize lists and speeches. Turn numbers into images and batch numbers together to make them easier to recall. But most importantly, think of your memory as a muscle that you need to workout daily to keep in shape. 

Building memory palaces

Artificial memory has two basic components: images and places. Images represent the contents. Places are where the images are stored. The idea is to create a space in the mind’s eye, a place that you know well and can visualize and populate with images representing items. This is what Foer refers to as a “memory palace.”

“Rhetorica Ad Herennium” advises readers to create images for one’s memory palace—the more funny or bizarre, the better. The more vivid the image, the more likely it is to not to be forgotten. The challenge then is for you to create these lavish images on the fly and paint a scene in your mind’s eye that cannot be forgotten and to do it quickly. Having a dirty mind actually helps your memory.

Remembering speeches

When it comes to remembering speeches, Foer recommends not memorizing word for word but point by point. Referring to Cicero, Foer points out that you should make a memory palace with an image for each major topic or point covered. Perfect recall of words is a task the human brain is not equipped to do.


A mnemonic trick for remembering poems and important information is to turn the set of words into a jingle or put them to music in a rhythm to add an extra level of pattern and structure. Song is the ultimate structuring device for language and one of the easiest ways to remember. Think of your favorite song or back to how you learned your ABCs. 

Remembering what you read

If something is going to be made memorable, it must be dwelled upon and repeated. Today, we emphasize reading as much and as fast as possible. Therefore, we can only expect to remember what we have read for a brief amount of time. Additionally, we tend to only read books once. Foer suggests we need to switch from “extensive” to “intensive” reading. Consider re-reading good books and taking notes.

Foer sites Michel de Montaigne, the noted French Renaissance author, who made it a habit to write notes to himself inside the back of every book he read. These notes included any important points and short, critical judgments.

Forer’s concludes: “Why bother investing in one’s memory in an age of externalized memories? How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. No lasting joke, invention, insight, or work of art was ever produced by an external memory. Not yet at least. Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: All these essentially human acts depend on memory.

“Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source our character. Competing to see who can memorize more pages of poetry might seem beside the point, but it’s about taking a stand against forgetfulness, and embracing primal capacities from which too many of us have become estranged. … Memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it’s about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human.”

After reading and re-reading “Moonwalking with Einstein,” I feel more alive and have started paying more attention to how I use my memory to enhance my life.